I have in the last few weeks been interviewing ex-ministers and senior officials as research for a RUSI paper, due out soon after the election, on how to improve the government's security set-up. Traipsing around various departments, a number of interesting conclusions have come to light:
- Conservative ideas for an NSC are not the same as the government's NSID committee, however much ministers say it is, but there is yet no clarity on the Tory detail of what one official called "the second layer" of reforms.
- Despite claims of Blair's presidential style, most interviewees underline how much power remains with individual ministers and departments and how far away from joined-up government Britain still is.
- The UK policy on Afghanistan from 2007 is the best example of joined-up policy but few similar examples exist vis-a-vis other countries, even quite important ones.
- Unless resources are pooled to a far greater extent rather than letting departments control their own funds, little genuinely "whole-of-government" work can be expected.
- While DfID is praised for shedding some its anti-poverty militancy in recent years, it is still seen as an insufficiently cooperative part of Whitehall. There are apparently no DFID staff on secondment to MoD.
- There are a scary number of cases of Ambassadors and DFID officials in the same country working at cross-purposes, with the support of their bureaucratic masters in London.
- Though being able to engage in overseas policing - whether as mentors, trainers or liaison - is key to multiple UK international aims, eg on counter-terrorism, this is still a lacking capability.
- There is a massive mismatch between UK resources and ambition - and that's before accounting for the need to repay the debt by cutting jobs, programmes etc. The Treasury-driven focus on cutting staff but not resources - eg in DfID - has been counterproductive. It is also becoming clear that while the early Labour governments invested heavily in getting departments more joined-up, ministers lost interest in this agenda and many old-style officials obstructed implementation.
If the Tories want to succeed in office they have to be serious about making joined-up government work, which means looking differently at how resources are dolled out, strategies written, personnel appointed, trained and given incentives. It means using some of the aid money on having proper supervision of programmes - not money spent by overstretched staff who cannot check in depth. The NSC, at least based on the detail available to date is a good start - but insufficient.
Finally, improving things also means prioritising. Britain is not Belgium but it is, in the words of one senior official, "doing too much". Whether, as Prime Minister, David Cameron can make ministers do what does not come naturally to their breed - ie think collectively and do less - will determine his success, at least in the national security arena.