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With many challenges ahead, it’s vital to improve the scrutiny of strategic thinking in government

(Alamy)

3 min read

Select committees hold a mirror up to government policy and practice. They are an established voice of scrutiny, questioning the spending, policies and administration of individual government departments.

We have got used to seeing secretaries of state and ministers face questions on their decision-making against the backdrop of Parliament’s committee rooms. Select committees can mobilise quickly on pressing matters of public concern and bring key people in front of committee members to immediately air any issues.

Select committees are well-placed to take an overview of policies across a longer period, such as the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, probed in detail by the joint work of the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee.

Brexit, Covid-19 and last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine demonstrated the need for long-term planning and delivery

But there is a gap at the heart of this scrutiny. Major events such as Brexit, Covid-19 and last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine demonstrated the need for long-term planning and delivery across multiple departments and several parliaments, as well as the importance of successful collaboration with our international partners.

To address this gap, the Liaison Committee has launched a new inquiry to find out how select committees can improve scrutiny of strategic thinking in government as the United Kingdom confronts major questions in the near and longer-term future. Questions such as: How do we maintain energy security while delivering on the UK’s net-zero commitments? How does the UK preserve its place in the 21st-century international order while balancing security and prosperity? There are also a number of emerging challenges around artificial intelligence which hold prospects for economic growth but also have consequences for our labour market and the safety of humanity.

This need not be negative. A government which is scanning the horizon for potential challenges can also spot real opportunities for the UK and work with international partners to shape the future.

As the pace of events over recent years has shown, the government needs to be more agile in its ambition, co-ordinated across departments and sustainable over time.

In our inquiry, we want to hear how well the UK government identifies strategic opportunities as well as strategic risks and threats. Are the government’s planning and implementation processes equal to the challenges identified? Do ministers approach internal and external challenges effectively? What should government publish or explain about its overall strategic concepts?

We’ll be asking if No 10 and the Cabinet Office are best placed to lead on these issues. Perhaps additional machinery of government, knowledge and skills are necessary to support strategic thinking and effective strategy delivery, whether that’s in a single government department or across several. 

We’ll be looking to select committees for recent examples of how they’ve examined government’s strategic planning and delivery to consider the key elements of effective strategic thinking and identify where improvements can be made. We’ll consider how individual departments and Whitehall engage with the work of select committees on strategic challenges, from the government’s provision of essential information to whether additional resources within the House of Commons are required. This could take the form of parliamentary procedure, knowledge and/or skills which are necessary to support effective select committee scrutiny, as well as monitoring the implementation of any government action in response.

We’re interested to hear how other governments and parliaments carry out this work, too. If other governments demonstrate best practice in strategic thinking, we’ll look to see how parliament is part of that process and engage with it purposefully.

Better scrutiny of strategic thinking by the UK Parliament can only contribute to better decision-making within government.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex and chair of the Liaison Committee

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