27 February 2007
PASC publishes report on strategic thinking in Whitehall
In a report published on 6 March 2007, 'Governing the Future', the Public Administration Select Committee calls on the Government to produce a 'Report on the Future' and urges the Government to take a coherent approach to strategic thinking. The report is published two days before the final Cabinet-level working group on the Government’s Policy Review.
The Committee acknowledges that governing “for the future” is difficult. Not only are there notorious uncertainties in forecasting, but governments are hampered by the short-termism of the electoral cycle. However, the Committee argues, the future will be shaped by the decisions that government makes and Government must not shy away from discussions of future problems even if (as with the current arguments about road pricing) there will be “fierce dispute over how government should respond.”
The report also considers the use of outsiders and external commissions to challenge current thinking and provoke debate but says “reviews, commissions and advisers should inform policy; they should not make it.”
1. The Committee maps the various parts of the machinery in Whitehall which are concerned with future thinking both at the centre and the departments and concludes that Government should take a more corporate approach to strategic issues. Departmental ministers should be more involved in the work of the Strategy Unit, and it should ensure that individual policy proposals are consistent with the broader direction of government.
2. Use of evidence and research is crucial not only in making plans for the future, but in convincing the public that action is required. Strategies should be kept under review so that the take account of new developments. Willingness to adjust policy in light of new evidence or changing circumstances should be seen as a sign of strength, not of weakness.
3. The Civil Service should develop and encourage a culture of thinking strategically. The recent capability reviews of strategic capability in Whitehall show there is room for improvement. Training and resources should be developed to fill the gaps identified.
4. The Government should publish a 'Report on the Future' once a Parliament as the basis for parliamentary and public discussion of the key strategic issues facing the country. The Liaison Committee may wish to question the Prime Minister on this report.
5. Parliament should establish its own forum for futures issues where Parliamentarians can work with external bodies to inform and stimulate debate. This forum could be created by strengthening the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
Chairman of the Committee Tony Wright said:
"Long-term thinking in government is now carried out more systematically and openly than ever before. Yet improvements in skills and a coherent approach to strategic thinking are still needed. The government must also make effective use of evidence and present it to the public and Parliament. Our recommendations for a Report on the Future and a forum in Parliament directly concerned with the long-term would ensure wide debate and consideration of how our actions today will affect future generations. Governments have an obligation to engage in strategic thinking even if it rubs up against the short-termism of the electoral cycle and carries political risks."
For more information about the work of the Committee, visit our website at
The Committee was nominated on 13 July 2005. Its terms of reference are to examine the reports of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsmen, and to consider matters relating to the quality and standards of administration provided by Civil Service departments, and other matters relating to the Civil Service. The Membership of the Committee is as follows: Tony Wright (Chairman) (Lab) (Cannock Chase), Mr David Burrowes (Con) (Enfield, Southgate), Paul Flynn (Lab) (Newport West), David Heyes (Lab) (Ashton under Lyne), Kelvin Hopkins (Lab) (Luton North), Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Con) (Bridgewater), Julie Morgan (Lab) (Cardiff North), Mr Gordon Prentice (Lab) (Pendle), Paul Rowen (Lib Dem) (Rochdale), Charles Walker (Con) (Broxbourne), Jenny Willott (Lib Dem) (Cardiff Central)
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