06 November 2014

The National Security Council was one of the coalition government’s first creations in May 2010. The Institute for Government and Whitehall History project’s new paper, The National Security Council: national security at the centre of government, traces a century of developments in national security coordination, culminating in the creation of the NSC and its development since 2010.

The National Security Council (NSC) coordinates policy decisions across the full spectrum of national security concerns – foreign policy, defence, and civil contingencies. In the wake of criticisms of mid-2000s ‘sofa’ government, the new NSC aimed to make national security decision making more transparent and collegiate:

•met weekly (more frequently in crises)
•was chaired by the Prime Minister himself
•deliberately combined senior ministerial attendance with the heads of the security and intelligence agencies and the Chief of the Defence Staff.

There have also been important innovations underneath the Committee itself, including:

•the appointment of a permanent secretary level National Security Adviser, coordinating the cross-Whitehall preparations for NSC meetings and subsequent delivery of NSC decisions
•a large National Security Secretariat to support the Adviser, incorporating officials seconded from several departments and agencies
•weekly supporting meetings of permanent secretaries of member departments, chaired by the Adviser
•a network of subcommittees and flanking officials’ committees to prepare the NSC agenda and coordinate delivery
•an agenda-setting process coordinated by the Adviser but ultimately decided by the prime minister, with two topics usually chosen for each NSC meeting.

The networks of subcommittees and officials’ committees are coordinating and ‘flanking’ mechanisms to keep everyone on board, and the close involvement of the prime minister in shaping the agenda and chairing the meetings serves as a ‘forcing’ mechanism or ‘halo’ effect to bind departments into full cooperation with the process.

The NSC is not entirely ‘new’. Placed in historical context, the NSC bears more than a passing resemblance to the Committee on Imperial Defence, established in 1904, and, in bringing ministers together with senior officials and officers it recreates wartime practice in a peacetime committee.
What separates the NSC from its most recent predecessors, though, is the sustained prime ministerial interest in driving policy through a structured process and over a sustained period of time.

Successes
The former Director of GCHQ, Sir Iain Lobban, recently described the NSC as “one of the best things this government has done...[it] takes the sentiment in the room and translates it into tasking for each organisation.” Other officials and former officials have praised the NSC process for bringing greater clarity to decision making and for opening up the process of ministerial deliberation so that senior officials can participate in the discussions. One former member of the NSC described to us its creation as “like the lights coming on.”

The prime minister’s engagement and the attendance of senior ministers and officials raises expectations and provides focus for committees – as the Institute argued in Centre Forward and was also true of Gordon Brown’s National Economic Council. Shepherding debate within this more collective process can help to remove the obstacles of departmentalism and foster more coherent policy decisions.

Challenges
The benefits of NSC-style coordination cannot be taken for granted. In our report on the NSC, we highlight three contingent factors on which its success has depended:
•Prime Ministerial time is at a premium – prime ministerial commitment is a great asset, but sustaining it is a challenge. The NSC is taken seriously because the prime minister chairs it regularly; it would lose much of this galvanising effect if prime ministerial commitment waned.
•Credible and effective coordination – the National Security Adviser role is vital for cultivating effective relationships with departments and ensuring that prime ministerial priorities are delivered. The role has until now been performed by experienced senior diplomats; diplomatic skills are a pre-requisite, but the longer term credibility of the post across Whitehall requires some future occupants to be drawn from other departments.
•Secretariat capacity – the National Security Secretariat is much bigger than its cousins, the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat (EDS) and the European and Global Issues Secretariat (EGIS). But doubts remain over its ability to challenge departments effectively, and a major test will be its role vis-à-vis the MoD during the next Strategic Defence and Security Review.

The NSC in the future
Much of national security policy is shrouded in a veil of secrecy, but the mechanics of good process, coordination and collective, well-informed decision making are largely the same as in more open spheres of government activity. The NSC mirrors themes we identified in Centre Forward: policy benefits from breaking down departmental barriers through a strong central secretariat, persistent prime ministerial commitment and the active cooperation of senior ministers.

In spite of improved processes and coordination, the UK government did not appear to foresee the Arab Spring, the Ukraine crisis or the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Future intelligence collection priorities, shaped by the NSC, no doubt need to be considered in this light. The NSC also plays an important role in shaping the agenda for the JIC and JTAC, so it is well-placed to drive structural improvements in the assessment of intelligence reports.

The NSC has created a powerful forum for collective action, one that opens up national security decision-making to departments and agencies, and generates a clear line of operational tasking. It relies on the ‘halo’ effect of persistent prime ministerial engagement to bind departments into cooperation, and on the effectiveness of the National Security Adviser in shepherding Whitehall in the direction mandated by NSC decisions.