Academics must help prepare ministers to make better decisions

The Covid Inquiry underlines the need to train political leaders to identify the best options under pressure, says former NAO director David Finlay

December 11, 2023
Coronaviruses orbit the Earth, symbolising pandemics
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The evidence of the UK’s ongoing Covid Inquiry has laid bare the process by which major decisions were taken by the government as it sought to respond to the fast-moving and dangerous threat of the coronavirus. Highly complex decisions were needed, involving multiple areas of government activity, including public health, education and support to businesses and employees, with implications for the economy of large additional government spending.

“There were no easy decisions,” Boris Johnson told the inquiry last week.

The one thing that stands out from the evidence of the inquiry is that, despite the extensive input of civil servants and advisers, it was ministers themselves who ultimately had to weigh up the information they were being given to arrive at judgements on crucial issues, such as when lockdowns should be implemented and how protecting public health should be balanced with the interests of the business community and those attending schools and universities. Those judgements had to be made quickly, by people working under intense pressure and often in an environment involving uncertainty or incomplete information.

But were ministers suitably equipped to make these momentous decisions? Former chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance’s diary comments referred to then prime minister Boris Johnson being “clearly bamboozled” by statistics and lamented “chaos as usual” in Downing Street as the government “flip-flopped” between alternative courses of action. Former health secretary Matt Hancock accepted in his evidence that plans for dealing with a pandemic that he had claimed were world-leading were shown to have been inadequate. The “ring of steel” around care homes proved to be an illusion.

In my book Coronadiary: 100 days that changed our lives and three skills government had been told to improve, published in 2021, I identified that previous assessments of major government projects had made clear the competencies that are most needed to effectively handle complex government situations. They are planning, making the best use of data and managing risks. Yet my research revealed that, before the pandemic, the government had been repeatedly warned in official reports from the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the Institute for Government thinktank and others that it needed to significantly improve these skills.

It also transpired that ministers responding to the pandemic had received no formal collective training in skills that would assist decision-making when faced with complexity and alternative possible strategies. We would never expect doctors or pilots to look after the public without suitable training on how to make good decisions under pressure, but during the pandemic we put our trust in ministers to make huge decisions, affecting all our lives, without any such training.

Ministers are busy people, so the training should be short but intensive – sufficient so that, when the Cabinet meets, its members know they have all been given a common framework that will help them to make effective decisions. A suite of further modules could be offered to those who wish to understand topics in greater detail.

The Cabinet Office now operates a campus approach dedicated to training public officials, some of which could be distilled into short sessions for ministers. The Institute for Government has recently set up an academy that explains to new ministers what their roles will entail; this could be expanded to cover decision-making processes.

It might be particularly valuable for ministers to hear from others who have to make complex decisions under pressure. As mentioned, doctors and pilots are examples, as are members of the armed forces. But the academic community would be well placed to contribute to such training, too. Many disciplines, such as the sciences and economics, would be able to explain the basics of statistics, interpreting data and the use of modelling to project possible future outcomes. And academic lessons from subjects such as infectious diseases, behavioural science and responding to terrorist threats could all be helpful.

Such training should not seek to duplicate the detailed expertise of civil servants and government advisers. It should instead focus on improving ministers’ ability to use these core skills of planning, using data and managing risks. This will help ministers to compare the costs, benefits and risks of alternative strategies and plan for different possible scenarios.

In the past, some ministers might have resisted even this limited agenda, arguing that their role was to reflect the will of the people, not become technocrats. They might have argued that it was for civil servants to distil complex research into simple decision options for them to select and sign off on. However, the ministerial errors being revealed by the Covid Inquiry would make it difficult now to push back against training that would enhance ministers’ ability to make better decisions under pressure.

When he first came to office, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to lead a government with “professionalism” at every level. We should expect ministers to be suitably trained for the responsibilities they bear – and academics and others should be ready and willing to make sure that they are.

David Finlay is a former director of the National Audit Office and the author of Coronadiary: 100 days that changed our lives and three skills government had been told to improve (ISBN 9781802270792)

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