Monday, 21 November 2016

Brexit – ‘crafting strategy’ instead of rigidity or chaos

Concern is mounting both in the UK and in Europe about what seems to be a lack of clarity concerning the UK’s plans for leaving the European Union (EU). This concern is well illustrated by the Italian Economics Minister, who commented recently that: “Somebody needs to tell us something, and it needs to be something that makes sense”. The Confederation of British Industry has also now joined in calls for the government to put forward a clear plan, in order to avoid “further crippling uncertainty”.

The government has insisted that a coherent approach is being devised, but that details cannot be shared in advance of the negotiations. Yet some senior officials have indicated that there isn’t yet a clear plan, and this seems to be backed up by a leaked report, albeit disowned by the government, which indicates that Whitehall is struggling to cope, that there are splits between Ministers and that large numbers of additional civil servants need to be drafted in.

There are of course a number of valid reasons for the government to be wary about sharing a plan:

·   First, the breadth and scope of the issues, and the sheer volume of intricate detail involved, indicates that a period of careful analysis is certainly needed. There are sound arguments for taking good time over this initial analysis stage, although some might argue that five months has already provided a reasonable initial window.
·   Secondly, it could be argued that the government should be careful not to show its hand within the EU in advance of the start of formal negotiations, so as not to weaken its position. This stance is itself weakened though by the extent to which initial pronouncements by the Prime Minister, about the importance of prioritising immigration control, are now shaping the positions that are being taken vis-à-vis Brexit from within the EU.
·   A third, and potentially weighty, reason for the government to be cautious about setting out its stall is that the Prime Minister will know that any indications of the government’s formal position is open to political attack internally, not least from within her own party, which has been described as a ticking time bomb in relation to Brexit. Continuing reports of splits on the strategy for Brexit between key Ministers underline the scope for internal political turmoil.

So, on the face of it there are plausible justifications, linked to careful analysis, negotiating tactics and internal political pressures, for the government to be wary about showing its hand. However, it is possible that the current situation is in danger of delivering the worst of all worlds. On the one hand, there is a deliberate refusal to set out a ‘plan’, which is being presented as a negotiating tactic and yet is leading to claims about uncertainty and confusion. On the other hand, the government has in fact indicated some sticking points – such as the absolute necessity of being able to limit free movement – which are setting off a chain of comments and reactions within the EU and so possibly limiting the government’s room for manoeuvre.

Since the words ‘strategy’ and ‘plan’ are being so frequently used in connection with Brexit, what insights does theory about strategic planning and management in the public domain provide for interpreting this confusing situation?

Informed by work on complexity theory, current thinking in this field highlights the benefits of an ‘emergent’ approach to strategic management. Within this perspective, carefully prescribed, formal plans that commit organisations and governments some way into the future are increasingly being seen as too rigid and inflexible for an environment of uncertainty and change. This type of thinking points to a more ’emergent’ style of planning in which flexibility, responsiveness and improvisation are the order of the day. Recent statements by the Prime Minster seem to take this tack, suggesting for example that the UK needs to “adapt to the moment and evolve its thinking”, in response to anti-globalisation and protectionist rhetoric from the US President-elect Trump. Indeed, some in the government may be hoping that the seismic-scale discontinuity caused by Trump’s election may create openings for negotiation in Europe that weren’t there before.

Recent thinking about strategic planning also suggests, though, that a wholly emergent approach is highly risky: without a sense of overall direction, it is all too easy for clarity to be replaced by confusion and a lack of coordination. As Rose and Cray (2010, p. 456) put it, in their exploration of strategy formulation in the public domain, “the lack of a shared plan can give rise to confusion, wasted resources and internal conflicts” – all of which seem to be clear risks in the current situation. They point to the value of a two-part, ‘hybrid’ process, in which a strategic framework sets out parameters and goals, articulated in sufficient detail to provide a guide for action, whilst retaining flexibility to respond to the changing environment.

Achieving this balance between clarity and flexibility is of course a hugely demanding and quite subtle task, calling for attention to the process of crafting strategy as a skill in its own right. Alongside all the current demands for ‘hard’ skills in Whitehall in areas such as trade negotiations, it is just as important that this ‘meta-skill’ gets the attention that it deserves. As the Institute for Government put it back in September, “when it comes to Brexit, silence is not a strategy”.

Ellen Roberts – follow me on Twitter

Rose, W. and Cray, D. (2010) ‘Public-sector strategy formulation’, Canadian Public Administration, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp.453-466.