4 June 2021

Cummings is right: we need to talk about strategic planning

By Dom Morris

The most striking observation made by Dominic Cummings last week received the least attention. The UK’s plans for crisis, conflict or catastrophe are either wrong, deeply flawed or simply do not exist. That a pandemic sat at the top of our national risk register pre-Covid is clear. Far less clear is why senior civil servants paid to prepare for just this eventuality did not have a proper plan.

What they did produce consisted of a few PowerPoint presentations based on flawed assumptions, with no clear ownership or leadership and no consideration of ‘command’ structures and decision-making processes. Nor was there any codified process to review and update the plan(s) when those flaws emerged – particularly the faulty assumptions on transmission of the virus and exponential growth in cases.

The broader question is that if this half-baked pandemic plan was our best effort, what is our worst?

That the most likely, most dangerous risk on our risk register was so poorly prepared for makes you wonder what state are our other strategic plans are in. What is the plan if China goes for the Taiwan Strait? What about a hostile state’s disinformation campaign against the UK? How well prepared are we for a bioterrorist incident

A tale of decline

The state of our nation’s strategic planning is a sorry tale of decline. For our institutions were forged amidst grand strategy. Committees and generals made strategy and planning both an art and a profession which was respected and rewarded – and nowhere more than in our military, where planners lived in teams who were doctrinally prohibited from focusing on the ‘now’ and devoted to the future. Planners tirelessly worked up options for our leaders with reams of documentation on the shelf for decision-makers should they need it: scheme of manoeuvres, concept of operations, command and control proposals, risk registers and so on.

That era is, unfortunately, long gone. Indeed, the last time we seriously engaged in grand strategy at a UK level was the Future Policy Study, published in 1960, when Harold McMillan was prime minister. Here was a document that recognised post-war Britain’s declining role in the world and set out to do deal with it. 

We no longer invest in grand strategy and planning is not a recognised profession outside of the military and small niches. While the Armed Forces retain world-class planning capabilities, the rest of the civil service has moved from specialists to generalists, prioritising ‘transferable’ skills over technical expertise. This is a mistake. A generalist cannot run a complex crisis, no matter how good they are at ‘working with others’ or ‘embracing diversity’.

Chilcot 2: The Movie

Our overseas departments, mainly the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, found this to their cost in Iraq and Afghanistan. Atlhough the military preparations were impeccable, the plans for what followed were wholly inadequate. The Chilcot Inquiry into the conduct of the Iraq War identified a litany of failures: an absence of cross-government planning and foresight; groupthink; poor leadership, and an inability to communicate effectively and drive behavioural change.

Frankly, living through Covid in Whitehall was like watching Chilcot 2: The Movie with a cast that had not seen the first film. The upcoming public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic is likely to identify similar fundamental problems. 

Mr Cummings was right to zero in on confusion over who was in charge. Rather than the “dictator” he suggested,  we needed a single, empowered Commander in charge. That is entirely possible within our system, but to do so the civil service must breed and train Commanders. The state has disinvested in the technical qualifications and experiences required to turn a senior civil servant into a leader in a crisis. Most excel in building consensus and compromise to get policies approved with minimal political friction across the Whitehall machine, but few have commanded a single incident, let alone a prolonged crisis where people are dying.

There was also an alarming lack of clarity about who was doing what. The wiring between COBRA, the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, the Covid Task Force, Test & Trace, the Joint Biosecurity Centre and the National Covid Response Centre was never established. Nor was a hierarchy or division of labour ever codified, leading to decision-making overload. To make matters worse, leaders very rarely met face to face and pretended to be able to solve problems on Teams calls. In fact, it wasn’t until last summer’s military’s winter preparedness planning process that some of the DIrector Generals and Directors first met face to face.

Data, risk and results

These organisational failings were compounded by the public sector’s inability to get the right data in a timely fashion, which meant subsequent interventions were always weeks behind. Rather than making use of the private sector’s expertise in this area, data gathering was put in the hands of senior civil servants who were simply not experienced enough to lead on this capability. As a result, the permissions and authorities to obtain the necessary data sets and machine capabilities were not sought, resulting in the glacial, mandraulic collection and analysis of the data. 

Risk management was another gaping hole in our pandemic response. At no point in my time working cross-government on Covid did I see any organisation using a risk management system. In fact, systematised risk management is simply absent from central government as a process at present. That meant senior leaders could not spot the biggest crocodile closest to the canoe and make decisions accordingly. Crisis doctrine has very clear risk identification, ownership and management processes – but if you have not led in a crisis and neither has your staff, then they wouldn’t know about these tools and how to install them quickly.

To top it off, there was no results framework for any of the state’s work during the pandemic. Clarification of your mission and quantifying what success looks like is step one in a planning process. For whatever reason this did not happen. As a result, conversations about the units of measurement (from health to economic) were not agreed and so agreed data and metrics were not used to inform senior mandarins in their proposals to the politicians.

Things can only get better

The good news is that the challenges above are relatively simple to sort out if there is the will to do so. 

The first step is to appoint an experienced Commander to review and revise our current top 10 national crisis plans. These updated plans would consider and codify data availability, leadership, risks, structures and wiring and results framework in world-leading form.

We should also put in place a new National Operations Centre tasked with managing future crises. The existing National Situation Centre is a start, but it only shows politicians the situation, without helping them develop options, make decisions and track progress. We must have a single, permanent, inter-agency structure in central government with ‘stripey’ teams of people from across the whole of government sat under one Commander. Teams within the centre would be organised by function: Analyse & Understand, Plan, Deliver and Measure.

Organisational change must be accompanied by improving the calibre of decision-makers. The Government should create a School of Planning where leaders from across government can learn elementary and advanced planning. The school could develop planning tools fit for the 21st century where problems sets are multi-domain, change at high speeds and require inter-agency activity as a norm rather than an exception. Another simple step would be to select 20 civil servants and send them on a year’s senior leadership training. The Royal College of Defence Studies has a template to start from. 

As well as better leadership, senior officials need a far better grasp of technological innovation and the use of big data. There is a strong case for a dedicated Chief Tech Officer, reporting to the PM and the Cabinet Secretary, who would be responsible for developing the State’s relationship with the private sector and technological innovation.

An appreciation of risk is also critical to politicians and officials making good decisions. The Government should appoint a Chief Risk Officer who reports to the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister on the national risk register on a weekly basis. This individual would score the crisis plans against the risks on the register. 

However competent the decision-makers are, there will always be a need for a robust system of challenge. Mr Cummings is keen on ‘red teams’ taking on this role – but these don’t go far enough, as they are a poorly resourced effort to shoot holes in an existing plan within the established hierarchy. To provide a proper challenge we need Alternative Thinking Teams, separately owned and resourced, to consider alternative options upstream before a commander has selected a course of action.

Finally, and crucially, none of this system will work well when a crisis strikes unless it has been rigorously put through its paces. That means an annual assessment of our crisis readiness that lasts weeks, not minutes.

The world is getting more complex, faster moving and more dependent upon technological capabilities. During the pandemic the British state has proven itself incapable of managing a natural crisis, let alone a crisis where the ‘enemy gets a vote’. To be better prepared we must invest in strategic planning excellence. That is entirely feasible with unequivocal direction from the top of government. 

I am certain that the Prime Minister felt that he was pulling levers that were not connected to anything in this crisis. Addressing the failings of this crisis and putting the strategic planning and resources in place for the next one would prevent him and the British public from ever being put in this position again.

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Dom Morris is a senior crisis and planning adviser to the UK government.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.