Learning from Chilcot: reform and the ‘grinding’ Defence bureaucracy

Mandarins in the Defence portfolio rarely make public comment, but rarer still are wake-up calls on the scale of the Iraq Chilcot report. Ministry boss Stephen Lovegrove reflects on the findings and questions for the UK bureaucracy.

Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry Report, published on July 6, is a major milestone in British public life. It’s extremely wide-ranging in its 2.6 million words, spread over its executive summary and 12 main volumes. And it needed to be, not least to address the concerns of Service families still living with the consequences of the conflict. Much of the report makes for sober reading.

Chilcot offers a deeply forensic account of the way in which civilian, military and intelligence services worked together, and with the political leaders of the day, to deliver a major overseas intervention. It identifies patterns of behaviour and culture that are hard to spot day-to-day, but which become apparent when seen over the extended period (2001 to 2009) covered by the report.

“When you read the report, you can feel the machinery of government grinding, lurching, not operating smoothly.”

Despite the EU Referendum result and its political aftershocks, the report’s publication attracted much media attention, three days of Parliamentary debate and a House of Commons Defence Committee hearing. But what happens now?

The report doesn’t just look at the department I lead, the Ministry of Defence. It covers the activity of all the government departments involved in the Iraq intervention. Indeed, many of its observations will be relevant for all departments, whether represented on the National Security Council or not.

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