A more strategic state

Yesterday in the UK saw the publication of an excellent report by a Westminster Parliamentary committee called the Public Administration Select Committee into the importance of ‘strategic thinking’ by those running the state. There is lots of good thinking in the report itself and its recommendations are well worth a read, especially the call for a ‘national strategy statement’ each year prior to the annual UK budget statement (forcing the UK Treasury to justify annual tax and spend policies based on the long term strategic interests of society, rather than the state treasury’s narrow interests)

Rather boldly though, given the committee chairman Bernard Jenkin MP is a member of the majority party in the ruling UK coalition government, the report stated that at present (and under prior administrations) “Government policies are not informed by a clear, coherent strategic approach, and that poor strategic thinking also undermines clarity of presentation to the public.” Coming from a British politician that is right in the strike zone for a Government.

The consequences of this lack of coherent strategic thinking, at the heart of the state, has had direct consequences for the shape and direction of UK society. A brilliant editorial in the UK wide newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, explained that the state has wasted a golden opportunity to undertake a fundamental review of what the state should and should not be doing, with the cost now being that what drives the policy is not a desire to rethink the role of the state from first principles, which is what it should be, but an ad-libbed attempt by the Government to salami-slice budgets in an attempt to live within its means”

How can we get the state to think more strategically about the society we all want? Well firstly we need to make sure key state actors want to think strategically! The most candid and insightful bit of oral evidence documented in the report came from a former senior civil servant who used to run an actual ‘strategy unit’ for a past British Prime Minister. According to Gill Rutter  “there is only any point in working in a strategy unit if there is demand for strategy …If they [politicians] felt it was necessary to have an underpinning clear narrative that they were judged by over the longer term, there might be more demand to think in that way in Government”

This is crucial. The state must have an “underpinning clear narrative” about where society is and where it is going otherwise it will never be able to help strengthen it. We know that without a state purpose, society is more likely to drift than strengthen. So, perhaps central governments such as the UK should actively consider breaking down the barriers to the development of a clear narrative and coherent strategy: what the Jenkin report called “departmental silos”

In Westminster the secretaries of state (i.e. home affairs, education, health) all sit in their own distinct organisations based along a busy street leading from the Houses of Parliament up to Trafalgar Square called Whitehall, yet rather than collaborating on a single narrative and common goals they and their many civil servants compete against each other to maximise their own agendas and spending resources. Well, there is a simple first step here to strengthen the coherence of the Westminster government: take all the secretaries of state out of their departments and put their desks all under one roof. Encourage them to work (and commission work from departments) together in the strategic interests of society, rather than in the narrow interests of their departments.

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