Use your intelligence: former UK spy chief on good decisions and poor information

By on 06/11/2020 | Updated on 06/11/2020
Taking decisions: Professor Sir David Omand gave a recent lecture on how to make evidence-based choices.

These days, the public discourse is awash with fake news; but intelligence operatives have always worked in an environment of uncertainty and incomplete data. At a lecture last week, former UK intelligence chief David Omand explained how techniques developed by the security services can help professionals to make better decisions. Kate Hodge reports

Professor Sir David Omand has dedicated his career to helping British governments take difficult decisions on national security. And at a lecture last week, Omand – a former director of signals intelligence agency GCHQ, Home Office permanent secretary, member of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and security and intelligence co-ordinator – took on fake news.

His new book, How Spies Think: 10 Lessons in Intelligence, explains how to make sound decisions despite all the misinformation and alternative facts that permeate the internet. “I have watched intelligence analysts over the years succeed in reaching good judgements despite never having enough data,” he said.

“We can all learn from their methods – and acquire self-knowledge of our emotional needs for the outcome of a decision, and the ways in which we are more likely to fall into in error or be deceived,” he added.

His recent online lecture for the Strand Group began as a practical lesson on how to make “solid” decisions, based on an explanation of cognitive processes yet set within his deep experience of intelligence and security. It then developed into broader reflections about UK foreign policy, including the UK-US partnership, and the relationships between professional advisers, ministers and external experts.

Emotion vs ration

There are two ways of thinking, said Omand: rational and emotional. Both should be used in tandem to reach “sound” decisions.

But the internet is making such balanced decision-making much harder, he said, in part because its business model is driven by its capacity to derive an emotional response from users. The service is paid for by adverts, targeted at us by machines sifting through our digital footprint and calculating what will elicit a response. “The internet is thus shaping our reality, and is not just a reflection of it,” he said.

In national security, Omand explained, care is taken to understand and separate rational and emotional thought processes. “We want the most impartial professional judgements possible… to guide those with the democratic mandate who have to take the hard decisions,” he said. And, while all intelligence analysts have unconscious biases, they are trained to spot their predispositions and how they might make mistakes. By doing so, Omand argued, they “reach a high standard of impartiality and truth telling”.

“We expect ministers and their policy advisers to take heed of such analysis,” he added.

Evidence-based decision-making

While the book provides 10 lessons in evidence-based decision-making, Omand focused on the first four: his ‘SEES’ model. These initial steps for rational analysis include:

Situational awareness: the “what, when, where” type of facts that show what is happening. “We need reliable, consistent situational awareness of what we face, before we start arguing about what policy choices we may have,” said Omand. In national security situational awareness can be vital, he added, giving the example of how in 1982 GCHQ intercepts forewarned Margaret Thatcher that Argentinian forces were heading for the Falkland Islands.

Explanation: the “how and why”. Facts can be interpreted in different ways, so all possible options need testing. “Providing a sound evidence-based explanation involves methodically testing alternative hypotheses against the data. You look for the explanation with least evidence against it, not necessarily the one with most in its favour,” advised Omand.

Estimate and model. This step asks: what will happen if we take a particular line or act in a certain way? “Our estimates of how events might unfold will depend on the adequacy of our situational awareness and the soundness of our explanation. And on the assumptions we may have adopted about how key individuals are likely to behave,” said Omand.

Strategic notice. This refers to the “possible future challenges that might come and hit us, especially when we are pre-occupied with the current crisis”. Such foresight helps governments prepare for – and even avert – long-term risks. But the marriage of insights and decision-making is not always simple. “In government, professional analysis and policy-making are different domains that sometimes find it difficult to understand each other, as we see today over what to do about COVID-19,” said Omand.

Working with experts

Given this, Omand argued for further collaboration with external experts when assessing “strategic notice” challenges. Most of the information about long-term risks is available from open sources, explained Omand, citing the examples of climate change and the US-China tensions.

It’s important that those inside government work more closely with external agents including think-tanks and academics, he said, as these professionals are likely to spot future problems. In terms of national security, he said: “A paper or a briefing by those on the inside, drawing on the knowledge of those on the outside, is what I would recommend. We sort of already have mechanisms to do that, but I think we ought to be thinking about drawing closer together.”


A theme underpinning the entire session was trust: how can you trust both the people providing the information and the data itself?

Asked about how badly US president Donald Trump has dented trust between his country and the UK, Omand made a clear distinction. “You have to be careful using the word ‘trust’ – it is quite a slippery word,” he said. “I prefer the term trustworthiness… And trustworthiness comes from integrity and perceived integrity, actually seeing that promises are kept, and behaviours follow the pattern of what you say.”

Professor Sir David Omand giving a previous lecture for The Strand Group in London in January 2020. Credit: Strand Group

In terms of US-UK relations, Omand believes that among defence and intelligence professionals this trustworthiness and cooperation is undamaged; in fact, it’s been “enhanced in the last few years”. Politically, the picture may be different. Trump’s behaviour – particularly on Twitter – makes him “harder to read” and it is “harder to ascribe trustworthiness to policy utterances” in his tweets, argued Omand. “But that hasn’t affected the underlying relationship between professionals,” he added.

Open conversations

Such principles of trustworthiness apply internally, too.  When asked about how to instil confidence between decision-makers and their “spies”, Omand was clear that it was a two-way street. “Are the senior spies, chiefs of the intelligence agencies, the senior officials, acting in ways that over time demonstrate trustworthiness?” he asked. It’s crucial that “with the information that they provide, the integrity shines through, it’s not distorted, it’s not aimed to please, it’s not aimed to make a point.”

Likewise, senior politicians and officials have to show the intelligence community that “they’re not going to let individuals swing in the wind when occasionally you get an error or the media stumble across some [story] and put it on the front page,” argued Omand. Such a comment will ring bells among UK civil servants after the sacking of education department chief Jonathan Slater.

“It’s mutual confidence and mutual support based on a fairly open relationship,” he added.

And while he was emphatic that the UK does benefit from mutual trust between intelligence and political leaders, when asked what one change would improve decision-making in government, his answer provided more nuance to his previous reassurance. Decision-making would benefit from the creation of “safe spaces where the senior politicians – not their special advisers – and their senior professional advisers – civil servants, scientists, intelligence community – could meet and they were talking truths to each other,” he said. In that environment, “because there are no witnesses, people don’t have to pretend; they don’t have to posture on either side.”

About Kate Hodge

Kate is a journalist and editor, holding roles at both the Guardian and the Financial Times. She specialised in education and combines writing, commissioning and editing with social media and audience engagement. If you have any ideas you would like to pitch, or suggestions to improve the website, feel free to email her on [email protected].

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