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National security inputs: more expertise = more effective decision making?

Government now needs to improve the national security expertise informing decision makers..

The 2010 reforms creating the National Security Council and National Security Adviser improved co-ordination in national security decision making. But good decisions require high quality advice and analysis: government now needs to improve the national security expertise informing decision makers.

Last week saw the publication of the House of Lords EU Committee's report, The EU and Russia: before and beyond the crisis in Ukraine. The report criticises the "reduced emphasis on the importance and role of analytical expertise in the FCO", lamenting a perceived lack of progress in "long-term rebuilding of deep knowledge of the political and local context in Russia and the region". The Lords report echoes previous calls for wider improvements in Whitehall’s analytical capabilities. Good political decisions require high quality advice from advisers and analysts. The last five years have seen significant reform of national security policy co-ordination, but more needs to be done to improve ‘upstream’ in the analytical space, to prepare for the next crisis, wherever that might be. The House of Commons Defence Committee has also explored this issue, holding several thought-provoking hearings, including evidence from former security minister Baroness Neville-Jones and former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Richards, to investigate the National Security Council’s (NSC) role since its creation in May 2010. The Institute for Government and King’s College London have previously explored the NSC’s impact on policy co-ordination and decision making. We argued that the NSC, as a high-level forum with sustained prime ministerial interest, has generated a ‘halo effect,’ making secretaries of state and their officials take central national security co-ordination seriously. The NSC has also had an impact on Whitehall’s national security experts and analysts. Former GCHQ director Sir Iain Lobban noted that the NSC provides agencies with clear ministerial direction: “[It] takes the sentiment in the room and translates it into tasking for each organisation.” Whatever the outcome of the next general election, the NSC can continue to shape significant issues, such as the next Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR). But as currently configured, the NSC and wider national security community have their limits. The Defence Committee Chair, Rory Stewart MP, is a persistent advocate for improving expertise in foreign and defence policy. For example, in October he described as “complete insanity” the fact that only three of the UK’s fifteen ambassadors in the Middle East could speak Arabic. Separately, Lord Richards told the Defence Committee that he had tried and failed to increase military expertise within the secretariat supporting the NSC. Improving expertise within government is one thing; but a persuasive case can also be made to draw more upon external expertise. Baroness Neville-Jones told the Defence Committee that “outsiders should be in the thinking process that surrounds the NSC”. The obstacles to bringing outsiders into the national security sphere are hardy perennials – career incentives are poorly aligned (a ‘fellowship’ inside government is still not a ready option for established or early-career academics, for example) and security checks can be cumbersome and slow. The debate about national security capability does not just revolve around improving knowledge of places and people, but also about habits of mind, especially the ability to think strategically. Baroness Neville-Jones conceded to the Defence Committee that, in her opinion, the prime minister was not “particularly strategic” and had instead a “highly operational” mindset. She added that the NSC lacks adequate support to operate at a strategic level and to ensure “follow up” on its decisions. We noted similar concerns in our report, pointing out that the NSC could be more or less strategic, largely depending on what a prime minister wanted from it. Baroness Neville-Jones told the Defence Committee that UK prime ministers, like most other heads of government around the world, “now effectively run external relations of their countries”, but the resources directly at their disposal are a fraction of those available to the Defence Secretary or Foreign Secretary. From the outside looking in, the centre arguably needs uplift to provide better national security support to the prime minister. The Institute for Government has made the case for improving Whitehall’s core offer in support of the prime minister’s executive responsibilities. While the NSC reforms show that much can be done to improve co-ordination without significant uplift in central headcount, it is difficult to imagine the centre improving its analytical capacity without a modest increase in numbers. Departments might, however, wince at further expansion of the centre, especially if it came about by absorbing existing departmental expertise. As we approach the general election, Whitehall needs to reflect on how it can best improve its prime ministerial national security offer. Different prime ministers have different styles and require tailored support. But whoever is prime minister after May’s election, high quality inputs and well-configured expertise are integral to good national security decision making in a volatile and unpredictable world as both the House of Lords report and Defence Committee hearings remind us.

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