December 3, 2021

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Why the UK’s national security architecture is ‘actively damaging to government’ and how to fix it

Are Britain’s national security structures “actively damaging to government” as one parliamentarian has said?

Has the current crisis shown the need for radical reform of the NSC, COBR and Mark Sedwill’s diary?

Why, in any post-crisis or after action review should we watch out for HiPPOs?

Before the government lists the lessons identified, and hopefully learned, from the Covid-19 response, is the architecture even in place to ensure the right questions are asked?

Bob Seely, MP for the Isle of Wight and a leading advocate of strategic thinking in parliament, says Western societies have become “complacent” since the end of the Cold War.

As a result, structures such as the National Security Council (NSC) and COBR, the government’s crisis management committee (housed in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms), need a radical overhaul, he says, as “we are living today in a much more dangerous world, but institutionally we still haven’t really reacted to that”.

Many people believe we are “living in a world without threat” he believes (less climate change, which he says is considered by many in society to be too far in the future to worry about).

“It took a war (in Ukraine) and the use of biological weapons on our soil for us to set up a Russia cross-government group and prod us out of institutional inertia.

“At the moment we’re struggling. We’ve become way too complacent in our outlook on the world.” 

Mr Seely blames no government in particular, but criticises theWhitehall culture in general and says he is “unconvinced” Britain’s current security architecture is working well. 

“It has improved but there is more to do. We need to stop being complacent about the state of the world.”

He proposes three things. 

As a start the roles currently undertaken by Sir Mark Sedwill, the government’s National Security Adviser, head of the civil service and Cabinet Secretary, should be shared more widely. Placing three busy roles on one person’s shoulders “is actively damaging to government,” Mr Seely says.

Instead, the government should appoint a National Strategy Adviser working under the PM’s stewardship of a new National Strategy Council. This senior adviser would look forward a decade at least to identify strategic shocks. The proactive National Strategy Council would complement the existing reactive National Security Council, which would focus on threats as they happened, he says.

Second, he contends the “brainy bit of Whitehall” – the Foreign Office – is underused and has its remit continually “nibbled at” by other departments. As such it should subsume the Departments for International Trade and International Development.

“Things link up at the top level, in Cabinet, and at the bottom level, with officials from different departments working as a team,” he says, adding “either way, we need to find a way for departments to function better together”. He champions the idea of Joint Effects Team to institutionalise cross-Government work at all levels.

“It is at the departmental level where things break down,” he suggests, “where people think ‘we’re just going to do things our way’.” 

Third, and perhaps most ambitiously, Mr Seely advocates the relinquishing of some of the Prime Minister’s power over operational management of global policy to the Foreign Office. 

“Number 10 has subsumed the best bits of the Foreign Office and the key leadership relationships probably going back to Churchill, and certainly structurally since Thatcher,” he says. 

“We need to fire up the ability and the ambition of the Foreign Office and let it be successful without hiving off the best bits. This needs to start with a strategy adviser and strategy council that helps us collectively determine the world we’re going to be in.

“[Dominic] Cummings is half right. His critique of what’s happening in government was spot on; it needs change to deliver. What I question is the increasing centralisation. That is not, and never has been, the solution.”

He says courage and honesty are required to properly ensure lessons are learned.

“There are some things we’re doing really well and some lessons that are going to have to be learned. There’s no room for a ‘blame each other’ or ‘cover our backs’ attitude. 

“The way you learn to do this really well is to be completely honest. We must have the courage to drill down and learn what we can to ensure we’re fit for purpose. Preciousness now is the enemy of keeping the nation safe in the future. 

His comments are echoed by Tobias Ellwood, Chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee, who says the government needs to be structured better to free policy makers to concentrate on strategy.

Mark Sedwill should be “liberated” from the two other portfolios he currently holds and concentrate, as a priority, on “the vacuum of international leadership which Britain should fill,” Mr Ellwood told the Telegraph.  

Sir Mark Sedwill, the UK’s National Security Adviser, Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service. 

COBR: an out of date gentlemen’s club?

General David Richards, Baron Richards of Herstmonceux and a former Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS), says the mechanisms of government “have been found wanting” by the Covid-19 crisis.

“The NSC and COBR are no longer appropriate to twenty-first century dynamic crisis management. Our political leaders deserve a better mechanism. 

“The NSC system is a broken command and control process. The much-vaunted COBR is a gentlemen’s club when it comes to managing a crisis like Covid. It’s a discussion shop with no real responsibility being assumed by anybody.” 

With overarching strategy for the crisis rightly set by the Prime Minister in the NSC General Richards suggests COBR, rebranded the UK National Command and Communications Centre or NC3, should then be responsible for devising and executing the operational plan.

One person – a very senior Minister – should be “Mr NC3, working to the Prime Minister,” he says, with the politics remaining at NSC level and cut out of the execution. 

Each government department would send its own empowered “chief of staff” to the NC3, which would have a permanent highly trained skeleton staff led by a naturally authoritative senior individual and much more dynamic communications than the current COBR arrangement.

Reviewing the roles of the NSC and COBR as mechanisms for managing crises is “the most urgent thing we should be doing,” he says.

The Telegraph understands such discussions are underway in Whitehall.

Structure aside, does Whitehall have the culture to learn strategic lessons? 

General David Richards says the lessons learned process must be “in the genes” of an organisation to be of any use. 

“It’s not something you just pick up occasionally during or after a crisis,” he says, “it’s got to be institutionalised.”

“There’s a huge difference between identifying lessons and then institutionalising them so they might genuinely be learned”.  

He says there are valid concerns about the government’s ability, however well intentioned, to properly conduct a review of the Covid-19 response in order to be better prepared for the next crisis. 

He suggests the military currently provides the best model and points to the Director of Operational Capability (DOC), as the “conscience of Defence”. 

A permanent appointment held by a senior officer (a Brigadier in the army and equivalent across the other services), General Richards says that with DOC’s team the MoD is probably better placed than any other Whitehall department to ensure lessons are properly learned and ingrained throughout the organisation. 

“DOC roams right across the piece – from peacetime activities to operations – directed by CDS personally. Every element of the chain of command has someone who locks into that person.”

Such institutional self awareness can be hard to accept and empowering individuals to feel confident levelling criticism depends on strong leadership from above. It is not uncommon for the military to correctly identify lessons “but five years later prove it hasn’t fully learned them,” the former CDS says. 

“The military is good at learning lessons. It’s in the genes and we have an established process but even then we’re not brilliant. We’ve shown this by too often relearning hard won lessons every time we go to war but, that said, our training is all about applying lessons and a lot does get through.”

New tactics are not just dreamt up out of thin air, he says, they’re based on experience, in other words, lessons. 

“But the key thing is to ensure one learns the right lessons, and that’s a judgement thing.”

Avoiding HiPPOs

Dan Simmons, Managing Director of Metris Leadership, a consultancy specialising in building leadership and high-performance teams, says the military is not institutionally good at learning lessons, partly because of the “churn” of personnel.

“It’s difficult to create institutional memory when people move places every two years.”

However, it is exactly because of the cycle of regular postings – whether in business or the military – that a more robust system of collective memory is necessary he says, particularly as post-crisis reviews are often seen as luxuries in busy organisations. 

As the dust settles after a catastrophe, Mr Simmons says the genesis of many reviews is “less to do with ‘what can we learn’ and more to do with ‘who can we blame’,” especially if they take place in the wake of a very public failure. 

Many reviews are nothing more than a series of hoops to be jumped through to show due process rather than an honest attempt to learn lessons, he suggests.

Like General Richards, Mr Simmons says the value of a post-Covid review started, say, six months after the declared end of the emergency is next to useless. 

Leaning on his past special forces (SF) experience, Mr Simmons says: “Organisations that are good at learning are doing it all the time, it’s baked into the battle rhythm. 

“If you look at [military] aircrew or SF teams it happens as a normal part of the battle rhythm, which is itself described by the mission cycle, be it 24 hours, a week or whatever.

“The minute you’re off the ground or off the mission you’re immediately thinking ‘what did we learn from that and what can we do better’.”

Making the time for a review after any activity, crisis or otherwise, is more a mindset than a function of time, Mr Simmons says. 

“People sometimes throw up that excuse; that the military broadly speaking is a training organisation that occasionally has to perform, whereas business has to perform all the time. If people understand what a proper after action review process can deliver, the great joy is that it can fit into the seams of a very busy day. This can be done very productively in ten or 15 minutes.”

“What questions do we ask and when do we ask them; that is management. Turning that into a routine part of the culture is where leadership comes in.”

He laments the HiPPO effect, whereby in any meeting, decision or post-crisis review it is the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion that holds sway.

No review can be conducted in such a constrained and fearful atmosphere, where the “hierarchy gradient” – the different authority experienced between various layers in an organisation – is so steep.

Mr Simmons likens the “wiring diagram” of a tank squadron and one from special forces. Both have an Officer Commanding (OC), a Sergeant Major and a handful of Troop Commanders, he says. But the gap between Trooper (the soldiers) and OC in an SF squadron in terms of their authority is much shallower, he says, “because the cultures of the organisations is very different”. 

“In order for this to really work well…the flatter the structure the better. 

“In a normal organisation, one of the most dangerous things you can do is disagree with your boss. Nobody had to tell you that, it was just inferred. 

“If there’s a very strong predilection to bite your tongue you get the ivory tower effect where very senior people all think things are going brilliantly and it’s all tremendously marvellous, because that’s what people are telling them. But when you get down to the coal face the reality may be very different.”

Military Lessons Learned

Is he confident the post-Covid-19 review will be conducted honestly, with departmental information offered unvarnished, warts and all? Are the structures in place to make sense of the mass of information in a timely and apolitical fashion?

“There’s no point in the system where all these insights are going to be selectively concentrated. It will be throughout the breadth and depth of [government departments], so being able to access that and make sense of it is one of those things that is simple in theory but quite hard in practice.”

Mr Simmons points to a further impediment when silos – be they in business or government – are cut across.

“What ‘good’ looks like is pretty agnostic,” he says. “We should treat it like data, but we have a real problem when emotions become attached to opinions.

“Challenging a different view suddenly becomes a personal attack, which is a failing of human nature.

“It’s really important people try to get some emotional distance between things and be really clear about ‘do we actually know something’, or is that just my opinion? It’s not just about learning lessons, it’s about how we innovate and do things differently in the future. 

“There’ll be as many opinions as there are bums in the room, each with their own personal  prejudices and experiences brought to bear. But for a sure and certain fact, none of them know until they find some way of verifying the data.”

Tobias Ellwood says the Covid-19 crisis is “testing the “bandwidth” of Britain’s current decision making structures and the “longevity and complexity of this crisis” has added wider security implications. 

He says many states have chosen to “retreat from global exposure” whilst others, especially China, “leverage the fog of Covid-19 to pursue their own geo political agendas”. 

Britain’s security architecture is about to be tested as never before in peacetime. There is no room for gentlemen’s clubs, especially if they contain Hippos.

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