Government and Strategy: What do they mean

July 27, 2011

In the literature of strategy you tend to find two ways of defining strategy as a type of activity.  Firstly, strategy is primarily about the relationship between ends and means.  Secondly, there is the definition that you find in game theory where strategy refers to situations of interdependent decisions making where your best move depends on the opponent’s best move.  You can summarize these as internal and external versions of strategy.    In the history of strategic thought Clausewitz reflects the first position while Sun Tzu (or Thomas Schelling) stands for the second.  An ideal strategy will combine both of these dimensions.  It will be focussed on the need to influence the outside world and the effective coordination and alignment of the organization executing it.

Since the 1980s ideas of strategy and strategic management have been imported into British government as part of efforts at modernization. The importation of strategy talk into UK government is a response to the fear that bureaucracies tend to inertia.  Strategy is about forcing them to define goals and align resources and organization to meet these goals.  The problem is in governmental organizations strategy becomes too much concerned with the internal dimensions of strategy and insufficiently concerned with what is going on outside.

Last week the government published its Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS).  In reading the strategy I really began to wonder if strategy in UK government has jumped the shark.   On one hand this is a model of ‘joined up government’ on the other it seems deeply problematic.    The key argument is that all kinds of bad consequences follow from failed states and violent conflict: death, violence, human rights violations,  refugees, ungoverned areas that are attractive to criminals and terrorists therefore British foreign policy should seek to prevent violent conflict and state failure because this is a better solution than dealing with the fallout.   So far so good.  How can state failure be prevented?  It requires good governance, inclusive politics,  a functioning economy, security and justice, public confidence in the system of government. This all makes sense.

The strategy then goes on to outline how the FCO, MoD and DFID will work together to improve mechanisms for early warning of state fragility, for rapid response to crises and to develop ‘upstream prevention’ of fragility and conflict. All the tools of foreign policy will be used, diplomatic engagement, soft power, defence engagement, development etc.

Fantastic. The strategy makes perfect sense it allows the three ministries to demonstrate a ‘strategic’ approach to the problem.  The question that isn’t addressed is do we have any evidence that this can work?  a) either  at all with essentially unlimited funding or b) with the level of resources that the UK can devote to the problem?  While the document keeps referring to examples of activities that have been undertaken these examples are about outputs not outcomes.  While I suspect that they would claim intervention in Sierra Leone as a success the references to Afghanistan don’t fill you with hope.

In the end I’m left with the feeling that this is a strategy that makes perfect sense ‘internally’ : it identifies a problem, analyses it, suggests responses, coordinates across government  but is largely irrelevant ‘externally’: the proposed solutions won’t actually produce results that will effectively deal with the problem.

Just because something has the label strategy on it it doesn’t mean that it’s strategically sensible.







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