Main Image Credit Whitehall, London. Courtesy of Joanna Lancashire.
The UK government is consulting more widely. But it still needs to grapple with the broader task of transforming information into understanding.
The Integrated Review is drawing to a close and will shortly elide into the Strategic Review, budgets permitting. Its ambitious aim was to go ‘beyond the parameters of a traditional defence and security review by considering the totality of global opportunities and challenges the UK faces and determining how government should be structured, equipped, and mobilised to meet them’. In doing so, it should think hard about how it does its thinking, in particular, how it turns information into understanding.
The Cabinet Office’s call for external contributions as ‘evidence’ asked the same root questions used in earlier Strategic Reviews, which will be familiar to think tanks, universities and journalists: what are the key opportunities, challenges, threats and vulnerabilities facing the UK now?; what trends will affect UK international policy?; how should government prioritise?; what changes are necessary for defence?; how will tech change everything? Since a collation of the answers will inform decisions on where government money will be spent, the review’s final question – how should UK systems and capabilities be reformed to improve the development and delivery of national strategy? – offers an opportunity to do some rearranging.
The traditional outcome of a Strategic Review is a shifting of limited resources between departments which collect intelligence or information, those which make policy, and those which enact policy (some do all three). But there is an invisible gap between gathering information, taking decisions and acting on them, which is where the thinking should come in. In an age of limitless information, and increasing investment in capabilities to collect information and intelligence, a government capability to make sense of it before making policy is essential. This thinking is done by the government’s assessment community, a small community of professional intelligence analysts which is dispersed around departments, none of which see assessment as their core task. As a result, when departments make big bids for resources to enable collection, there is no loud voice calling out for investment in assessment.
The government aspires to strengthen the UK’s resilience and improve its risk management system. A properly run risk management system could only work if it was fed by an assessment community which received all available information, tracked trends, and knew when to flag to policy makers that a risk was growing or reducing. The UK’s ability to seize opportunities, anticipate risks and meet future threats and challenges could be significantly strengthened if it had a sufficiently staffed and empowered analysis and assessment capability which turned information into understanding and could communicate this effectively. The government could build this by investing significantly and consistently in the already-existing professional analysis and assessment community, by widening the number of departments who feed in their analysis and assessment, and by improving governance to integrate this into risk management and policy making systems. At a time of financial constraint, this would be the most cost-effective means of real change.
The Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and the Cabinet Office Assessment Staff sit at the apex and heart respectively of a number of diverse bodies within government categorised as doing intelligence assessment or analysis. Lord Butler’s Review of 2004 stressed the value of bringing analytical skills to bear on intelligence material from across government and drawing the results together within the JIC machinery; according to the principles of his review the analysis and assessment is independent of policy influence. While the JIC forms judgements which inform the UK’s foreign, defence, security and development policy (and the National Security Council), other bodies have executive roles (the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre sets the national threat level) and departments like the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Treasury have their own analysts who specialise in providing advice internally. Defence Intelligence, which sits in the MoD, is the largest such body. This makes it difficult to provide exact figures on the number of civil servants working in assessment in absolute and relative terms, but it is significantly smaller than the number collecting information, taking decisions and acting on them.
Not only is more information available publicly, but the UK government now collects much more than it did. As collection and investigative capacity has grown steadily over the last two decades, there has not been commensurate growth in assessment. The 2015 SDSR missed an opportunity to invest in assessment, recommending instead a restructuring of its governance which was addressed through greater coordination and the strengthening of the Intelligence Analysis Profession, one of the civil service’s 28 recognised professions.
This now has much greater confidence, common standards and training and has set up an Intelligence Assessment Academy to train analysts. This is a significant achievement, but it has been done on a shoestring. There has been very little uplift in numbers since 2015, and some assessment bodies are entirely reliant on individual departmental contributions for their headcount; these fluctuate depending on pressures on departmental resource. Most are understaffed and struggling with workloads. At a time when we are being encouraged to rely on science, use evidence to take decisions and listen to the ‘super-forecasters’, we are still content to take decisions, and to esteem the skill of ‘policymaking’, without being prepared to invest properly in processing and thinking about information which would inform that policy making.
The government assessment machinery, however enhanced, will not have a monopoly on wisdom. A rigorous assessment process and risk management system would include input from government scientists, diplomats, soldiers and policymakers, but would give a strengthened cross-government analytical community time and space to distil all those inputs. It should of course be enriched by understanding from non-governmental sources. This has proved consistently difficult despite best intentions, in part rightly due to the need for security of information, with privacy issues on all sides. But imagine what the UK could do if the collective heft of the insights of its financiers, lawyers, academics, think tanks and journalists was properly used.
In a new era of discord, war, retribution, disputed elections, technological revolution, the great value of assessment is that it not only provides an early warning system but it enables the government to keep its poise. If it is sufficiently rich and rigorous the government will be able confidently not only to adopt new positions but to know when to stand fast and when to ignore, to distinguish between the imperative and the fake. It will ensure the best possible options can be presented to ministers.
Suzanne Raine was a senior member of the government’s assessment community, headed the Joint Terrorism Analysts Centre until 2017, and is a Trustee of RUSI.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.