Monday 28 January 2019

Desperately seeking live politicians for our wargames

I play wargames as part of my learning. If there is a crisis or potential crisis that takes my professional interest, I print out an A3 map, do some counters and use a variant of whichever set of rules seem to work from my archive. I spend a few hours on the game and as a result my understanding is always moved to a new, deeper level. However, I have noticed that actual politicians are absent and so are missing the opportunity to learn from our professional wargames.

Those operating at such a significant level of decision making are exactly the kind of people you want to be "gamers", those who've played through the situations they're having to handle in the real world many times before.

By wargames, I mean contested conflicts, where the red team is doing their best to win and the outcomes are not pre-scripted. These are different from exercises which are to test/ teach procedures, rather than decision making.

There are three parts to the enigma of the missing politicians. The first is our political system encourages the selection of the popular, which may or may not qualify them to make analytical rational decisions in the unexpected pressure of a crisis. (This is not an argument to suggest an alternative political system. As Winston Churchill said “democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”)

The second part is that games highlight performance issues. Sometimes politician and their political advisors’ performance are inadequate and the spotlight of the game makes this abundantly clear. I ran a game and a really important senior manager’s performance in the game was so bad, even the butler noticed (yes, sometimes I have a butler and domestic staff when running games for a certain level of player). So, I conclude, that sometimes a politician does not want the spotlight on them or certainly not on their advisors.  Not all advisors are appointed for their subject matter expertise in political matters.

The third part is the politicians fear of leaks. Games are just games and can be vehicles to explore all sorts of events, even the unlikely. E.g. what happens if NATO does not support the Baltic Republics against Russian aggression? Obviously, they get occupied, but what are the second and third order effects? A game is an ideal tool to explore this complex situation. However, the media will happily seize any game story and misrepresent it as news. The media understand wargames i.e. they are used to explore, outcomes can depend on chance etc., but they will put a spin on newsworthy games in their continual search for ratings.

Why are their leaks from confidential games? The world of cyber security gives us some clues. Some participants do not believer in leaks, on the grounds everyone they know in life is honest and would never gossip. Some just go to work for money and are not really that bothered about the wider ramifications of a leak. There is also a very small chance of being detected when leaking a story. Journalist sources have some legal protection if the story is in the public interest (journalists interpret this as any story the public are interested in is therefore clearly in the public interest). Secondly, politicians are rightly wary of unleashing the computing forensics dogs of war in a leak enquiry. The thought of Special Branch trawling through email boxes is frightening; who knows what stories of corruption, classified information sent through private email, affairs, harassment, bullying or perhaps just general verbal abuse of colleagues that might emerge?

To my knowledge, the last UK politician to periodically attend and participate in wargames (as opposed to scripted exercises) was Margaret Thatcher. Some might contest her ‘legacy’, but she did occasionally harness the power of games as part of the cycle of learning. For professional wargaming to have greater impact, politicians need to play.