People, Purpose and Planet: Three steps to enduring change in UK defence and national security

Cate Pye

By Cate Pye

The UK national security network has long been aware of the need for change but has lacked either the breathing room or burning platform to prioritise and enact it.

COVID-19 has changed this. With a reinvigorated relationship between government and the public it guides and serves, the present moment offers an opportunity to act with greater impact, radically rethink priorities and work more collaboratively. All of this raises the bar for the forthcoming Integrated Review of Foreign Policy, Defence, Security and International Development.

The review is an opportunity to refocus efforts on the new information mission space and redress the imbalance of investment between physical and information assets. It should prioritise cyber, space and modern technologies that enable organisations to gain strategic advantage through greater shared situational awareness.

In particular, it’s a chance to build on the heightened inter-Departmental collaboration that has characterised the COVID-19 response and harness the long-term opportunities collaboration offers, such as mutually benefiting from enduring technological disruption and the convergence of the physical and information realms.

We believe leaders need to focus on three areas to reap maximum rewards from the integrated review: people, purpose and planet.


Establish a recognised training route and create sustainable, fulfilling careers

Future success will hinge on the human factor. Founding a National Data Science Academy that provides an approved apprenticeship and universally applicable training would allow all national defence and security organisations to attract, recruit, train, develop and share talent. It’s an approach we’ve seen Switzerland take with the Swiss Data Science Center, launching a string of academic projects, industry collaborations and the creation of a software platform for data science. The centre is also helping study data sources from around the globe to understand epidemic spreading and help contain COVID-19.

This academy approach would make a more attractive career path for cyber and digital specialists. Participants would be streamed and deployed according to their unique skills and attributes.

Graduates would move easily across the national security system, creating lasting links between the government, public sector and academia as they develop varied careers in challenging roles. The nation needs to provide such opportunities as part of a high-value, knowledge-based economy.

This new cyber workforce needs to adapt swiftly to emerging technologies and technological risks, hence the need to build greater resilience and adaptiveness into the system and improve its ability to withstand shocks.


Promote a purpose-led agenda to inspire the workforce

As the world recovers from COVID-19, many will reflect on what they want from employment. Their experience is likely to accelerate the flexible career paths the National Data Science Academy would create. Such trends are already emerging as the result of digital disruption and the aspirations of younger workers seeking flexible, durable careers.

Attracting and retaining talent, particularly people with scarce technical skills, will rely on capturing their imagination and fostering a shared sense of purpose. Employees want to work for an organisation that reflects their values. Employers who offer purpose-led, adaptable, collaborative working will attract the best. The power of purpose is an asset, a mobilising force and a reason for being. And this energy has only strengthened lately with the response to COVID-19.

But while the UK’s global influence and national security raison d’être is compelling, it is organisationally fragmented, so it must articulate a joint purpose across similar organisations and make this a reality.

Make national resilience a core function

Our foreign policy, defence and security posture has traditionally focused ‘upstream’ on ensuring threats do not reach our shores. But COVID-19 has reinforced expectations that our armed forces and security services will also deal with emergencies at home. Along with the multitude of evolving threats testing capabilities built in a more stable world, this underscores the need to build capabilities that are adaptive by design in order to counter the widest range of expected – and unexpected – threats.

Look at how Finland, for instance, uses its National Defence Course to train and prepare members of society for crises, or how Latvia and Sweden offer public training on identifying disinformation. And this is an approach that Scotland is considering building on, moving away from any traditional notions of national service to how the delivery of human security can be improved.


Re-envision national security priorities to build a sustainable global future

We recommend that to the three existing national security objectivesprotect our people, project our influence and promote our prosperity – the government adds a fourth: preserve our planet. This would address climate emergency side-effects – from human slavery and trafficking to famine, drought, poverty, conflict and the resulting instability, border and security risks, and by doing so reduce threats at home.

Act as a socially responsible entity
All organisations, particularly government ones, have a duty to save resources. The national security sector should lead by example in reducing waste and behaving sustainably. For example, a single data centre can use the same energy as a small town, so the government should pool technology resources to build and share data acquisition, processing and analytics services that support the full spectrum of operational missions.

The integrated review is a unique opportunity to build on the shared cooperation we’ve seen during the COVID-19 crisis and move beyond traditional thinking. It provides the opportunity to prepare for the new information mission space by aligning policies and strategic decisions with the three key themes of people, purpose, planet that are essential for ensuring a positive human future.

Discover all our insights related to COVID-19

Find out more

About the authors

Cate Pye
Cate Pye PA cyber and defence expert

Explore more

Contact the team

We look forward to hearing from you.

Get actionable insight straight to your inbox via our monthly newsletter.