Thinking about how we think about COVID.
How do we look beyond the immediate problems in front of us as the COVID response develops? How can we develop a genuine shared national (and international) campaign to prevent, deal with and mitigate the effects of COVID, and move away from what feels like a series of local responses to events?
This article is a sort of sister article to one I wrote in February on the COVID ‘deep battle’ — I’ve been reflecting in that earlier post and trying to work out how I could share some similar ideas, but framed in a different way.
So I’ve recast this to look more widely at the issue of ‘thinking about how we think’ about COVID — and sharing some frameworks that I think could open up our approach to this challenge and maybe promote a bit of innovation. I’d welcome feedback :)
The military has frameworks to help thinking about strategy, operations and execution. Lots of frameworks. Having been schooled in these frameworks in my first career in the UK military, I find myself applying these frameworks all the time, whether consciously or not. Sometimes that are helpful, and sometimes they aren’t. But just now, when looking at COVID, they are not just useful but also alarming. I’d like to share some of them here — and explain why I’m worried about what comes next in the UK's response to COVID.
The powerful thing about these frameworks is that they require that you think and act in a genuinely comprehensive way. You can cherry pick to a degree, but if you apply these frameworks in the spirit in which they are developed and offered they demand that you think through a problem in a genuinely comprehensive way. And that means all of it, over time, not just the bit that’s in front of you now.
Strategy, Tactics and Operations
The first framework if like to share is the framework of the different levels at which operations need to be conceptualised and connected. They are the strategic, operational and tactical level. The way these work is best described with an example.
Let’s take the example of the UK's involvement in operations in Afghanistan. I’ve got nothing to say here about the rights and wrongs of that involvement, but want to use it as an example to bring these levels to life.
First the strategic level. This is about rationale, about the long term purpose and framing justification of an endeavour. In my example, the strategic rationale was about things like staying close to and preserving a relationship with the US, preventing ungoverned space from becoming a safe space for threats to our interests developing, or about securing long term access to rare metals. Again, no value judgement here, just examples. So the strategic level is about why you are doing what you are doing. To what end?
I will now jump down to the tactical level. This is about everyday activity — on the ground. It’s about who is doing what when over the next day or week, and how we coordinate it. It’s the actual activity and how it is syncronised and organised. Day to day stuff — the operations you see on the screen in the ops room right now.
The operational level is what links these together. It’s also the most opaque and difficult to grasp — in the military those generals that really understand the operational level have a status akin to sages or wizards. The big top level narrative is easy, as is the day to coord. But finding the shape that connects to and makes sense of both is not.
In the example I’m using the operational level is about the operational design — in this case most simply described as developing indigenous capability across the security, economic, political and social domains and stepping back as this capability developed. That’s the core design principle that gave shape to day tactical operations, and linked to the strategic purpose.
So, we have strategic, tactical and operational levels. They are connected, comprehensive and they work together in a sort of gearing that sometimes moves fast and linear, sometimes is more of a fluid coupling. But the key thing is that successful operations (in the round) requires us to think about and set out our plans in terms of these three levels, and to recognise the dependencies between them. Just thinking about tactics doesn’t work, it’s an ever decreasing circle. Just doing strategy doesn’t work, you end up shouting into the wind. And just operational level is no good either, because without strategy it has no purpose and without tactics has no manifestation. Strategic, tactical, operational level. All connected.
OK — so lets now think about COVID. Can you detect in the UK's response a clear articulation of these three levels? I can’t. I can for the response in places like New Zealand — look at the way the team of 5 million has tackled this societal challenge and you can detect these layers in action — and most crucially you can see the operational level, the shape, the operational design and how it changes and develops over time. I just can’t do this for the UK's response. I haven’t heard the strategic narrative — the rationale seems purely the need to respond. The tactics are clear, most recently with regard to the vaccination programme which has been a textbook example of this level working well. But the operational level, the design and the shape? The phases and the transitions and the agility — where is this? I don’t think it exists. I may be wrong, but Ijust can’t detect it. The UK is all response and all tactics — the other two layers are generally missing.
Deep Close and Rear
The next framework is deep close and rear operations. This is a powerful framework that forces you to think and act in a way that recognises two obvious but easily forgotten things. First, operations are subject to and need to change over time. And next, that success on an endeavour depends on enabling conditions and that creating these conditions, not just doing stuff, is the key to success.
Close operations are the here and now — the activities that you aim to have an impact or effect (key word) in the short term, however that’s defined. It’s the stuff you’re doing now and the purpose of doing that stuff.
Rear operations are the things that allow you to keep doing what you plan to be doing. It’s the supply lines, the logistics, the legal frameworks that enable you to work. The things that if you neglect or get wrong will stop you in your tracks. Think dull, but essential. A sort of cash flow for your plans.
Deep operations covers the stuff you are doing now to shape or create the conditions for future success. Again, a bit like the operational art the deep operations can have a sort of mystical status among military planners, and those that grasp it can seem gifted with a sort of foresight that is unusual. But it’s not magic, it’s simply recognising the constantly transitioning nature of operations, that the conditions for success are what makes or breaks campaigns, that these conditions change over time, and that a key element of effective operations requires that you commit resources to creating those conditions.
This framework is the one that’s got me really worried. The UK is all over the close battle. The numbers of vaccines, the collective ticking off of the different vaccination cohorts. The rear operation too is obviously important in terms of logistics (think PPE) but has enough consideration really been given to public attitudes and behaviour as a key rear operational factor?
But it’s the deep operation — the deep battle — where the biggest hole is. Effective operational design requires some sense of the shape of a campaign over time, and the ways in which this will change and develop, and the tactics that will be employed as this ebb and flow takes place.
As I write we are firmly in the middle of a close battle to vaccinate — but what is the deep battle? I have no idea, because no-one has said what comes next after the vaccine has been rolled out. Even 100% vaccination won’t be the end of our campaign, because the virus will still exist, it will still mutute, it will still break out. What will we be doing then? What will our close battle be when we have got through the current phase? No one seems to know. So we keep fighting different close battles that pop up as opposed to investing in deep operations now that will shape the conditions in the future. We have literally no idea what comes next. So we don’t know what conditions we need to set to be successful. So we probably won’t be.
Perhaps the best example of what this means in practice is test and trace. What is it for? Is it part of the deep operation? How is it being developed and in relation to achieving what conditions? It’s impossible to say — because we don’t have a deep operation.
You can see the problem this creates. Without a deep battle we are stuck (as we always seem to have been) in the close battle. React, react, react. Not react, shape, change, move forward. We are collectively stuck on a close battle hamster wheel — and until some proper thinking, perhaps using some of these frameworks is applied — that’s where we will stay.
So, I think applying the two frameworks of Strategic/tactical/operational level, and Deep close and rear operations to the UK's COVID response is both very useful and very worrying. I admit I may have a partial, outside the tent view of all this, and I’d love to be proved wrong, but my fear is that our collective thinking is simply not comprehensive enough. It doesn’t take into account the design, the shape of what we are trying to do, and how this will change over time. What is the shape of the overall campaign, not just the latest daily number? How can we lift our eyes from the close battle and shape the conditions we need to succeed in the future?
How can we campaign, and not just respond?
If you have read this far, I’d love to hear what you think. And if you are working for HMG, I’d also like to help. firstname.lastname@example.org