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In a report published yesterday, Tuesday 24 April 2012, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) calls on the Government to publish an annual 'Statement of National Strategy' in Parliament, to underpin the annual spending round and the run-up to the budget. PASC concludes that a clearer expression of the nation's strategic aims is vital to ensure that short-term decisions are made in the context of the long term national interests.
In the light of recent concerns about a strategic vacuum at the centre of Government, this Report explores the capacity of Ministers and officials to carry out long-term strategic thinking to tackle the complex, diverse and unpredictable domestic and global challenges the country faces.
The Report sets out the Committee's concern that Government policies are not informed by a clear, coherent strategic approach, and that poor strategic thinking also undermines clarity of presentation to the public. PASC also found that an absence of clear and precise definition of terms meant that policy and different levels of strategy became muddled, leading to unintended and unwelcome outcomes. Drawing on the evidence it received, the Report sets out clear definitions for national or 'grand' strategy, operational strategy and policy.
PASC have produced a number of recommendations to overcome the barriers to working strategically in Government. The Report states that the Cabinet and its committees are accountable for decisions, but there remains a critical unfulfilled role at the centre of Government in coordinating and reconciling priorities across departments, and of long-term and short-term goals.
The report concludes that the government’s six strategic aims as provided to PASC are "too meaningless to serve any useful purpose". The strategic aims of the Government, informed by public opinion, should reflect the UK's national character, assets, capabilities, interests and values, and provide an indication of the objectives which policies must achieve.
The Committee recommends that the Government should publish an annual 'Statement of National Strategy' in Parliament which reflects the interests of all parts of the UK and the devolved policy agendas. This would be a snapshot of how National Strategy has developed providing an opportunity for reassessment and debate about how tax and spending decisions should support the Government’s national strategic aims.
If published in late spring or early summer, it could mark the start of each new spending round and budget process. The Budget process should provide clearer links between long-term objectives and specific budgetary measures. The report also highlights the importance of a public discussion about how public spending is divided between entitlement and investment priorities.
PASC also recommend a focus on working strategically across departmental silos, driven by a stronger centre of Government, would provide the Government with the capacity to deal with current issues, as well as strengthening resilience and the ability to respond to the unexpected.
The challenge of National Strategy is to ensure that the Government's aims and policies reflect the values and aspirations of the public as well as addressing the long term interests of the nation. The Government must also have the imagination to be prepared for what cannot be foreseen.
In support of Ministerial commitments to open up Government, the Committee also recommends that Whitehall should be more open to the ideas and policies of expert stakeholders such as academics, civil society groups and think-tanks.
Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
"There is no doubt that today's Government is presented with very severe economic and political challenges. This makes coherent National Strategy all the more vital in order that there is clear process by which policy, and the tax and spending decisions that underpin it, should be aligned with the nation's long-term interests, public values and identity. The Government presented us with six strategic aims, such as "a free and democratic society", but these are so general as to be meaningless, and we have invited the Government to formulate aims which indicate more clearly what policies its departments should pursue as a consequence.
In the UK, too often the annual Budget appears to determine strategic priorities but this does not necessarily lead to coherent national strategy: this is the wrong way around. Tax and spending decisions should be the consequence of a more visible National Strategy, aligning spending and tax decisions with the national strategic aims of Government.
Public opinion and strategy can work together in either a vicious or virtuous cycle; success can reinforce public values and aspirations but the wrong aims or "muddling through" undermines them. National Strategy must be informed by a coherent assessment of the public's values and aspirations. This is not about abdicating policy making to opinion polls, but National Strategy must appreciate what sort of country the public aspires for the UK to be.
The complex, diverse and unpredictable domestic and global challenges facing the UK mean that strategic thinking is both increasingly difficult to sustain, and yet it is more vital to do so. Failing to do so in the long term undermines national self-confidence and in the short term could have catastrophic consequences."
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