Constraints on the Design of Security Policy: Insights from Audience Costs Theory and Security and Defence Elites in the United Kingdom

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Strategy and Security Institute


This project seeks to explain how security policy is developed in the UK, and suggest how relationships between different security and defence agencies can be improved. Security policies protect the borders of a nation-state and the security of its citizens and include military, economic, environmental and cybersecurity policies. These policies are designed and implemented by different agencies including military organizations, the intelligence community, and government departments such as the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence. We live in a fast-paced world where security threats may unexpectedly emerge from state actors such as the Syrian government, or non-state actors such as terrorist organizations. In this rapidly changing security environment it is paramount that national security policies be designed with enough flexibility so as to increase the likelihood of success. Important constraints can hinder this need for flexibility.

One such constraint is that members of the security and defence community might fear losing support, appearing as incompetent, or harming the reputation of their agency if they fail to implement a security policy they had previously committed to implementing. This can make them wary of significantly modifying a security policy, even in the face of important environmental changes such as budget cuts or the emergence of new information regarding the predicted effectiveness of its implementation. Such fear of domestic backlash likely played a role in American forces continuing to build up Iraqi security forces, even in the face of compelling evidence that suggested these forces were in fact fuelling sectarian conflict.

The first part of this study combines theories of foreign policy decision-making with the real-life experiences of high-level practitioners developed during residencies in key government departments and military organizations. The applicant will interviews elite members of the security and defence community in the UK involved in the design and implementation of security policies. Although the interviews will be carried out with members of the security and defence communities from the UK, the theory will be pertinent to describe the development of security policy globally.

In the second part of this study this theory will be tested using innovative experimental techniques to allow a detailed and empirically grounded exploration of the formation of security policy in democracies. Members of the security and defence community will be invited to participate in the online survey experiment. They will read about a hypothetical international security crisis, a policy that was initially proposed by a Whitehall agency, and whether the agency acted consistently or inconsistently regarding its implementation. They will then answer questions about their willingness to support the behaviour of the agency they read about. The answers of all participants will be analysed to determine if inconsistent behaviour is punished when it comes to the design and implementation of security policies.

Knowledge will be exchanged with members of the security and defence community during the entire study. This will culminate in the third and final part of this study. Findings will be presented at agencies that design and implement security policy in the UK, so each agency can learn more about how other agencies operate and how they view each other. Also, the applicant will organize a two-day practitioner workshop. Here members of the security and defence community, members of the broader civil society such as non-governmental organizations, and representatives of the media and pressure groups will discuss how actors not directly involved security policy play a role in shaping it indirectly.

Planned Impact

Policy makers often highlight the role democratic institutions play in constraining the security policies of states. Democratic societies have institutional systems of checks and balances in place to ensure that the will of the many overpower the will of few. However, the constraints inherent to this system of checks and balances might also produce negative externalities like inhibiting flexibility in the design and implementation of security policies. This can significantly limit options in times of international crises like the one we currently face in Syria and the Middle East more generally. This research will bring together theoretical knowledge and the observable experience of representatives of the security and defence elite to assess the benefits and costs associated with the present way security policy is designed and implemented in democracies like the UK. During this project the PI will actively co-produce knowledge with the users of this research, and invite them to discuss findings at the end of the project through different activities. Ultimately, it is anticipated that this research will benefit the Whitehall security community because agencies with specific roles in the security policy process will learn more about intra and inter-agency relationships and their effect on the process of security policy in the UK.

Direct beneficiaries of this research include representatives of the security and defence elites in the UK such as the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Cabinet Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) and the Joint Services Command and Staff College (JSCSC). Other beneficiaries include members of the broader civil society such NGOs, the media, and pressure groups.

Impact activities are embedded throughout the project. During visits to FCO and the MoD and residential periods at the Cabinet Office, ARRC and the JSCSC the PI will offer workplace workshop/seminars. These will encourage participants to reflect on their organization's internal processes and behaviours, as well as external relations with other security agencies. Subsequent phases include engagement activities such as carrying out interviews with high-level security and defence elites where themes such as policy decision-making in the UK and policy flexibility will be discussed. Additionally, research findings will be presented at different security agencies. The final activity of this project is a practitioner workshop hosted at RUSI in London to engage research consumers and as well as other beneficiaries such as the broader civil society. The broader public can play a vital role in the design of security policies. They can either constrain or compel state leaders to employ coercive foreign policies. The public can demand the imposition of tough economic sanctions like they effectively did against apartheid-era South Africa. In periods of elections, public preferences can promote escalating existing sanctions like what was observed in America's policies towards Iran before the 2012 Presidential elections. Bringing together security and defence elites with members of the broader civil society will no doubt prove enlightening for both sides.

Other outputs include the creation (and circulation) of a policy brief outlining general trends found during the study's interview phase and providing policy recommendations and regularly updates to the project section on the Strategy and Security Institute's (SSI) website. The implications of the project findings for the design and implementation of security policy in the UK will be published in a policy-facing journal such as International Security, and possibly in a process-oriented journal such as Political Psychology.
Description The project has allowed shinning a light on key differences between how UK security elites and members of the public view key security and foreign policy matters. Although not part of original (pre-EU referendum) application, some of the findings are important in the context of the UK's new positioning on the world stage. In addition to publications listed in relevant section, I have 4 further working papers based on grant that reflect this. Their publication has been delayed due to COVID obstacles, but I expect they should be in print within the next year.
Exploitation Route Findings form part of increasing interest in field re understanding differences and commonalties between experts/elites and members of the general public. Quantitative project data has been published, and academics have been in contact with further inquiries about advice on using it.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description Invitation to provide oral evidence in Foreign Affairs Select Committee (to take place March 31st 2020)
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description Submitted written evidence to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee: Perceptions on NATO and Defence Policy. Public Opinion in the UK, France, Germany and the United States and Security Elite Views in the UK (co-authored with Jason Reifler and Thomas Scotto)
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Description Travel Grant
Amount $100 (USD)
Organisation International Studies Association (ISA) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 02/2017 
End 02/2017
Description University of Exeter ADR Strategic Fund
Amount £5,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Exeter 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 05/2017
Title Constraints on the design of security policy: Companion quantitative survey 2017 
Description This companion survey asks many of the questions that were asked to the elites in the original security elite survey. The survey was fielded on a nationally representative sample of 2,000 British adults in 2017. The database has been uploaded on the UK Data Service site, together with a codebook to help interested parties navigate the dataset. It will be made available to the public in April 2019. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Dataset will be made public in April 2019. 
Title Constraints on the design of security policy: Survey data 2016-2017 
Description This database constitutes the first-ever survey that specifically captures security preferences of UK security elites and members of the public. Elites were selected based on their knowledge of security issues, as well as exposure to national defence debates. The sample includes members of the British Defence Academy as well as members of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the UK's think tank more directly specialized in studying international security and defence. A companion survey was fielded on a nationally representative sample of 2,000 British adults in 2017. The database has been uploaded on the UK Data Service site, together with a codebook to help interested parties navigate the dataset. It will be made available to the public in April 2019. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The dataset has not yet been made public. However, I was contacted by a researcher who had seen the description of the dataset on the UK Data Service website. We are now currently co-authoring a paper on national views on nuclear policy. 
Title Security elite, interview data 2015-2017 
Description Twenty-five face-to-face interviews were conducted with high-level members of the UK's foreign, defence, and security policy communities over 2015-17. Key personnel from different government security agencies/departments were selected based on their knowledge of and experience with the design of security policy in the UK. Interviewees hold - or have recently held - senior positions in their organizations: Senior Civil Servants (and equivalent officials) at Director Grade or above; Armed Forces officers at Brigadier (1*) level or higher. Interviews were structured to gauge views on the following areas: national and international security landscape (and appropriateness of UK security policy), the nature of inter-organizational relationships, decision-making processes leading up to the current (and past) Strategic Defence and Security Reviews, effectiveness of the National Security Council, determining how power/influence was exerted within the UK security system, and identifying factors that hinder the flexibility of security policies in times of crises. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact As stated in the original Data Management Plan submitted to the ESRC in 2014, an original concern was that difficulties in the anonymisation of the qualitative interview data would present a significant obstacle for data sharing. Although names and geographical identifiers have been removed from transcripts, having concluded the interviews I believe some of the interviewees could be identified by someone with knowledge of the UK security landscape. Of particular concern are interviewees of under-represented groups in Whitehall. After discussions with a UK Data Service representative and with the University of Exeter Research Data Management team, we decided it best to not to make the transcripts publicly available. They will instead be stored in a secure location within the University of Exeter server system (as per University of Exeter and Ministry of Defence ethics approvals). A general description of the data will be available on the UK Data Service site. If a researcher wishes to access transcripts, he/she will have to contact me as PI and we will make a decision on a case to case basis. Were access to be granted, the researcher would have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. In the specific case of Ministry of Defence interviewees, since they signed a consent form precluding sharing information with third parties, each participant would have to consent to their transcript being shared. 
Title Understanding how elites and members of the public perceive each other's security policy preferences in divided times 
Description A major innovation in the study was to ask security elites and members of the public not just what their security preferences were, as they were also asked to estimate the views of the other group in question. To the best of knowledge, it is the first time items of this type have been asked with comparable elite and mass public samples in the field of political science or international relations. A co-author and I have invented a new way to analyse this data, which involved imputation, as well as analyses to determine whether projection was playing a role when estimating views of others. We recently presented these findings and the unique statistical analyses we created at a EU Foreign Policy workshop in March 2019. 
Type Of Material Data analysis technique 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact I presented the models at a 'Communicating EU Foreign Policy: The Power of Political Dialogue' Research Workshop, Darmstadt March 11th-14th 2019. We plan to submit the working paper for publication later this year, so more people will be aware of this methodological innovation then. 
Description Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) 
Organisation Royal United Services Institute
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution A close working collaboration with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) has been consolidated as an effect of the grant project. In addition to hosting the end-of-project workshop at RUSI, I have published a RUSI Whitehall Report that presents project findings in a practitioner-focused way. In addition to the online and in-print report, RUSI has also asked that findings be distributed using multimedia platforms such as twitter (this campaign should begin in March-April 2018).
Collaborator Contribution After analysing the exploratory interview data, it became apparent that a narrow focus on testing specific relationships between variables via an experiment was valuable but that a more general survey of foreign and security policy preferences and attitudes among UK elites was also needed (no such survey exists for UK security/defence elites). After meeting with RUSI leadership, they presented this survey as an Exeter-RUSI collaboration to its membership in order to invite all of its members plus its extended network to participate (they do not allow third parties access to their membership base). This is a significant improvement on the expected RUSI sample at the time the grant was awarded (initially set to target a much smaller segment of RUSI -the RUSI 'Under 35' forum only). The project has been advertised on the RUSI website, and printed materials were distributed among attendees to their event on 'The Defence Implications of Brexit' on March 14th 2107. In March-April of 2017 the survey was fielded, and 533 members of RUSI and the RUSI extended network participated.
Impact September 2017: end of grant practitioner event at RUSI, "UK Security Policy: National Institutions and the Gap between Expert and Public Opinion" (details in "Engagement" section). February 2018: published RUSI Whitehall Report, "Mind the Gap: Comparing Foreign Policy Attitudes of Security Elites and the General Public" (details in "Publications" section).
Start Year 2017
Description Practitioner event at RUSI: UK Security Policy: National Institutions and the Gap between Expert and Public Opinion 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact In September of 2017, I hosted an end of grant practitioner event at RUSI, "UK Security Policy: National Institutions and the Gap between Expert and Public Opinion." All panels presented project findings, and panellists included a mix of academics and policy-experts. Panels included, 'Formal and informal interactions in the National Security Council and the fixed-term Strategic Defence and Security Review', 'Foreign Policy Attitudes and Security Policy Preferences - Comparing UK Elites and the General Public', and 'How wide is that pond anyway? Comparing Foreign Policy Attitudes and Security Policy Preferences of UK and US Elites'. The event was quite successful, with panelists and attendees drawn from across the policy and security sectors. As a result I was asked to meet with representatives of the House of Commons Foreign Policy Select Committee (in November 2017), as well as to write a report for the House of Commons Defence Select Committee which I submitted in October 2017. This document was well received by the Committee, and I was later asked to write a longer report as part of the RUSI Whitehall Report series. The report will ensure this ESRC-funded research reaches the very centre of the UK security policy community whilst providing unique opportunities to ensure high-level engagement with RUSI (the world's oldest independent think tank on international defence and security) and the defence and security community thus enhancing my future professional reputation as a research leader - a key objective of this scheme.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017