Bernard Jenkin MP is Chair of the Liaison Committee, and MP for Harwich and North Essex. He was Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee when it produced three reports about improving strategic thinking in government.
The road fuels crisis is still playing out in some parts of the country. It was predictable, and predicted by some.
Such a failure is inexcusable in a modern, resilient economy. Government has been blindsided by decisions which have led the UK to be far too exposed to foreign electricity and gas supplies. (Did nobody imagine that Vladimir Putin might use gas supplies as a weapon of disruption? They did – but warnings were ignored.) Covid also blindsided Minister, even though a flu or coronavirus pandemic was a known risk. There was even Exercise Cygnus in 2016, which modelled the disaster that might happen.
Some of us are looking again at the challenges facing the centre of government, and the need to strengthen strategic thinking and foresight. Here are four lessons I was promoting during conference week at fringe meetings.
Lesson One: resilience
The UK needs to develop more resilient supply chains for vital commodities like road fuels. The present model may minimise working capital for supermarkets, but we can see from this experience (and form previous experiences such as in the 2001 tanker drivers’ strike) that the present supply model is much too risky.
Lesson Two: communication
In a crisis like this one, the public will not be flannelled by mere ‘messaging’ from Ministers. Success of government communications during Covid is based on –
- Press conferences from Number 10 giving real, detailed and comprehensive information to the public.
- Simple, understandable data expressed in tables and graphs, which people can readily understand and interrogate; and
- Presentations by permanent and impartial Whitehall figures (such as the Chief Scientist and Chief Medical Officer) who are much more likely to inspire public confidence.
All this should be supported by clear, memorable guidance to the public. All crises should use this template to secure public confidence and support.
Such an approach requires ministers to stop pretending that there is not a crisis much sooner than they did with road fuel shortages. The press have constantly sniped at the government about the Covid response. The Government was extremely vulnerable, because it has had to learn from mistakes throughout, but a responsible and the well-planned communications operation headed this off. The fact that the public can see the government is constantly implementing lessons as they arise has also helped.
Lesson Three: preparation
If there is a known and persistent problem, such as the shortage of HGV drivers, there must be someone in the system who is responsible for picking up the problem and addressing it. This should happen as soon as the problem is known – not years later, once a new crisis has broken. Ministers cannot be held accountable if they are not being informed by their officials.
Sooner or later, a problem such as the present one lands on government anyway – so it may as well take action to prevent the crisis in advance. This is not to make Ministers responsible for what others should be doing. They should, however, have been holding industry accountable for addressing this skills shortage, not just passing the buck to it in the hope that it was in their own interests to sort it out for themselves. That approach has failed here.
Lesson Four: organisation
There should be a unit in the Cabinet Office, probably reporting to the National Security Council, constantly scanning the horizon for potential crises like this.
There is a Civil Contingencies Unit. What was it doing? It should have been alerting departments, to ensure that they are coordinating a response to the problem. It should provide briefings to the Prime Minister, Cabinet Secretary and National Security Council on unaddressed issues which might lead to a crisis.
This involves external engagement with relevant and informed experts, industry, academics, and stakeholders. This process and thinking demands new skills and capabilities in strategic thinking, which the Government barely possesses. There needs to a new culture of contingency planning, red-teaming and challenge to accepted truths.
Governments find this tiresome. Some ministers would see this as civil servants causing trouble. The responsible minister, and most particularly the Prime Minister, does have to want this work – or Ministers will just keep shooting the messenger, in which case civil servants won’t risk telling the truth.
The M25 protesters were the last straw that broke the petrol supply and road infrastructure’. Peter Bryson is an ex-logistics manager from Tesco who built much of their distribution network. He has explained the origins of the crisis: HGV drivers’ wages being undercut by the European Union over 18 years; the UK becoming dependent upon two choke points (Port of Dover and M25); the disruption from Brexit (plenty of warning for that!), the pandemic…and finally protesters blocking the M25, which was merely ”the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
Better machinery of government and a new culture of inquiry and challenge are essential if government is to be better prepared for what ministers cannot be blamed for failing to anticipate themselves.