Learn from the army and cut down excessive meetings, civil service told

Report by ex-No.10 spad sets out how officials can learn from the armed forces after the coronavirus outbreak


Army personnel at NHS Nightingale Hospital set up to take Covid-19 patients. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire/PA Images

Civil servants are too dependent on management consultants and should instead learn from the armed forces, according to a report penned by a former No.10 special adviser.

The Covid-19 crisis has exposed the flaws in the civil service’s planning practices, former spad Chris Brannigan has argued in a report for the Policy Exchange think tank this week.

In particular, it has shown officials use external consultants as a “managerial and confidence crutch”, according to Brannigan, who was a British Army officer before becoming director of government relations in No.10 under Theresa May, and later a senior special advisor in the No.10 Policy Unit under Boris Johnson.


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He said all of government should learn from the armed forces planning practices that have been used in parts of the coronavirus response, such as repatriating British nationals and setting up mobile testing stations, such as standing up the Nightingale hospitals that are providing extra beds for coronavirus patients.

Taking its cue from the armed forces, the civil service should introduce “planning analytical methodologies across Whitehall departments for interoperability during emergency situations”, Brannigan said.

And departments should bring military planning staff to work alongside civilian staff to work on resilience and emergency planning, he said.

The former adviser also called for a common teaching syllabus for civil and military resilience planning.

“Military commanders and decision makers understand that plans have to be made to work, within a time frame and to an agreed outcome. Everyone within the structure of planning and delivery understands that their responsibility, authority and accountability are evidently embodied in their respective role,” Brannigan said.

But he argued that the same “culture of trust and credibility is not always evident in some Whitehall bastions”, and that this can “create frictions and diversions in a time of crisis”.

Brannigan said learning lessons from the armed forces would not only help the government to respond more effectively to crises, but in ordinary times it would help to deal with the “excessive numbers of meetings” and the “absence of common terminology” that leads to misunderstandings and delays.

And he added: “Lessons learned from the armed forces would help to address the powerlessness of departments and ministries to deliver on policies that so often depend on outside agencies for their execution.”

Writing in the foreword to the report, General Sir Peter Wall, a former chief of the general staff, said: “This crisis has proven yet again that the private sector and civil service, with all its talents, can learn much from the armed forces about project management, command and control and timely delivery of the desired outcome.

“It is vital these lessons are learned in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus crisis to boost the resilience of the UK economy and our civil defences… In the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis we would do well to invest in more of this indispensable capability as part of our national resilience.”

 the coronavirus crisis to boost the resilience of the UK economy and our civil defences… In the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis we would do well to invest in more of this indispensable capability as part of our national resilience.”

A government spokesperson said: “The UK’s civil service and armed forces have a long history of working side-by-side across a wide range of emergencies, crises and national events, and share experience and expertise in handling these issues.

“Throughout the coronavirus outbreak civil servants and members of the military have worked closely to plan and deliver essential parts of the UK response, including the building of the Nightingale hospitals, regional and mobile testing and the delivery of protective equipment to where it’s needed."

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