The Chilcot report offers important lessons about decision making for future generations of political leaders and officials

David HS

Much of the media reaction to the Chilcot report has inevitably focused on what it says about Tony Blair. However, the report also offers plenty of powerful long-term insights about decision making. David Laughrin suggests that there is a danger that these lessons will not reach their intended audience. Sir John Chilcot and his team should therefore be urged to build on their seven years’ lifetime investment, and invest some more on its implementation. They would have much to contribute.

 My wife has just finished reading War and Peace, a long read though apparently shorter than the Chilcot report. She believes that everyone should read Tolstoy’s gripping thesis about why countries should not go to war lightly and why older men and women should not be trusted to put young men’s or women’s lives at risk. But she suspects that this will not happen in these days when tweets are more read than novels or newspapers or indeed the Chilcot Report.

After reading the 911 paragraphs of the Executive Summary of the Chilcot report – surely some kind of record for an Executive Summary? – I fear the same fate for Chilcot as for Tolstoy. But future academics and deliverers of learning and development for civil servants, themselves a scarce commodity at present, surely need to bend their efforts to ensure that we do better.

For although Chilcot acknowledges that the particular set of circumstances that led to the war in Iraq and its inadequate follow up are unlikely to be repeated, there are plenty of powerful long term insights lurking in the lucid prose. Some are so stark that they do not even lurk, but jump out of the pages.

They emerge dramatically in a number of one or two sentence paragraphs such as:

‘99. The Note reflected Mr Blair’s own views. The proposals had not been discussed or agreed with his colleagues.’

But the focus on Mr Blair himself that has dominated media discussions should not distort unduly the debate about the Chilcot report. The right focus is surely on what it says about decision making. There is plenty of literature about what makes for good decision making, including

  • the importance of framing the issue in the right way,
  • having sound evidence and analysis,
  • rigorously assessing the options,
  • focussing on the practicability of implementing decisions as much or preferably more than the decision itself,
  • and subjecting all decisions to robust challenge up to the moment of decision.

Chilcot devastatingly suggests that few of these precepts applied in practice to the decisions on Iraq and the subsequent occupation.

It will not be easy to change the approach to decision making in the way that the Inquiry hopes. To illustrate this, I can offer one example. I have recently returned from taking part in some training at the Defence Academy for middle ranking officers on their way to the top. In one exercise I challenged an able and very well qualified officer on why he was promising to do something by tomorrow that he did not know today was practicable. ‘We like to be positive and say yes if we think we might be able to achieve something’, he said.

That was the same day that the Chilcot report spelt out that:

‘Ground truth is vital. A can do attitude is laudable but this can prevent ground truth from reaching senior ears’ (863)

‘It is therefore important to guard against overstating what military action might achieve and against any tendency to play down the risks’ (827)

‘When the potential for military action arises, the Government should not commit to a firm political objective before it is clear that it can be achieved. Regular reassessment is essential, to ensure that the assumptions upon which policy is being made and implemented remain correct.’ (828)

So how can we ensure that the close and unequal relationship between the politicians and the armed services, and between the UK and the US, do not lead again to the kind of decisions which were taken over Iraq? As the Inquiry suggests potently, there are ‘no prizes for sharing a failure’ (834). This was something that Harold Wilson recognised when he saved the UK from backing the US over Vietnam, in which he reckoned the UK had no overriding strategic interest. The danger now is that analysis of that strategic interest has been revised without sufficient challenge or refinement.

The essence of the Chilcot findings on the key decision making lessons can be found in four key paragraphs towards the end of the Executive Summary (871 to 875), which have much wider application. They read:

  • Analysis of the available material must draw on multiple perspectives, reflect dissenting views, identify risk – including that associated with any gaps in knowledge – and consider a range of options.
  • Information must be shared as widely across departments as is necessary to support that approach.
  • Gathering information and analysis of the nature and scale of the potential task should be systematic and as thorough as possible …
  • Plans derived from that analysis should:
  • incorporate a range of options appropriate to different contingencies;
  • reflect a realistic assessment of UK (and partners’) resources and capabilities;
  • integrate civilian and military objectives and capabilities in support of a single UK strategy;
  • be exposed to scrutiny and challenge at Ministerial, senior official and expert level;
  • be reviewed regularly and, if the strategic context, risk profile or projected cost changes significantly, be revised.

 But what is the chance that these truths will reach the intended audience with any more effect than that enjoyed by Tolstoy, who was presciently pessimistic about his own chances of success?

In the 21st Century, we cannot assume that a blockbuster report, even one written as cogently as Chilcot’s, will achieve what is required. As much as credit is due to Chilcot, his fellow Inquiry members, and its able secretariat led by Margaret Aldred – and the team really have done wonders to reduce all the evidence into a cogent, clear and compelling narrative – they need to be urged to build on their seven years’ lifetime investment, and invest some more on its implementation. I hope that despite the weariness that must be afflicting them, they are musing on this even now. They would have so much to contribute.

There are at least five questions that leap from their report:

  • How can we ensure that governments have the capacity to think clearly and for long enough about the key strategic decisions that they face and the validity of the relevant evidence and options?
  • How can we diminish the likelihood of ‘group think’ and provide for effective challenge and risk assessment to be built into controversial decisions without undermining confidence in those offering the challenge?
  • How can senior officials and, where appropriate, senior armed service leaders, most effectively present truth unto power?
  • How can the lessons of history be captured and applied without appearing to be the last resort of those resisting necessary change?
  • How can ministers and officials best learn together how to apply the insights that come from reviews of past successes and failures?

We need to ask Sir John Chilcot, his team, and a range of wise politicians and senior officials who have observed the scene over these momentous years, to set out their answers in a way that is most likely to be influential on future generations of political leaders and officials. These prescriptions need to be delivered in a multi-media way, be accessible and be accessed. Then Tolstoy’s ambition might stand just a small extra chance of success. We certainly cannot rely alone on the chances of future decision-makers reading War and Peace or the Chilcot report, or even its Executive Summary.

David Laughrin is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit and a former senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence. He has published articles on ministerial overload and on decision making in government and business.

One thought on “The Chilcot report offers important lessons about decision making for future generations of political leaders and officials

  1. Having been an MoD civil servant in one of their establishments and worked both with Army and RAF officers, I can agree with your experience at the Defence Academy. What I would suggest is that it is difficult to ask a middle-ranking officer to say to a superior officer “Are you sure that you want me to do this, because it may not be possible to achieve the outcome that you want”. I suspect that the ‘can do’ approach succeeds often enough to justify its retention.

    Perhaps the problem is that the superior officer needs to ask the right questions before giving the order.

    Let me make an analogy with management in a company. The Armed Forces are essentially hierarchical. Information flows up the hierarchy and orders flow down, but a blockage anywhere causes the information from below that blockage to be lost. Some companies use a matrix management approach with project management on one axis and professional skills on another. The project management axis is analogous to the existing Armed Forces structure, but the professional skills axis is responsible for ensuring that the company retains the capability for current and future projects. What is important is that the top of the professional skills axis is represented at Board level. Issues like the use of the unarmoured ‘snatch’ Land Rovers that Chilcot criticised might have been avoided had there had been someone sufficiently senior in MoD who could have insisted on the proper kit being available. After all, the UK was already in Afghanistan and IEDs were not an unknown threat.

    There is another problem, which certainly came out in the evidence to Chilcot from Admiral Lord Boyce, of the Treasury’s malign influence in UK Government policy-making. Continuing to require the MoD to do more and more with less and less funding was a recipe for disaster. The ‘Peace Dividend’ was not a myth, but was spent several times over through cuts to defence spending.

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