HUMINT Overhaul of the UK intelligence community


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Emerging from the Shadows: Redesigning the UK’s security apparatus for a more prosperous future


The UK’s national security landscape was created for an earlier era, in which novel information was scarce, the process of capturing it carried intrinsic value, and its dissemination was highly prized. Limited by the complexity and cost of gathering and guarding secrets, its scope was inevitably constrained, leading to a highly insular culture.

But the world has changed. We are in the information age, where data is ubiquitous. The intelligence edge now lies with those who can most readily access and exploit data and use it to generate actionable insights at pace, using tools such as collective intelligence, data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. And the demand for such insights is not restricted to defence and national security, but to all parts of government and the wider public sector. Across government, politicians and policymakers are wrestling with complex, interconnected challenges which must be addressed for future UK prosperity, advantage, and resilience.

The UK intelligence community (UKIC) is facing an existential challenge. It is being out-competed by providers of open-source intelligence and data companies, who can sell their insights to any customer (including, of course, UKIC). To stay relevant into the mid-21st century, UKIC needs to pivot into the future and reimagine itself.

We envisage a future where UKIC becomes a much broader cross-government capability, whose primary function is to provide the right information at the right time to the right customer – both maintaining a core of security intelligence but also enhancing intelligence from other sources. Often this will mean using open-source data sources and expanding into a wider range of problem sets, topics and technologies than might once have been considered within its remit. Instead of being a monolith, it must become a network, embedded as a ‘golden thread’ through sectors and services where ‘security’ is a lens through which to view and contribute to wider discussion, and where the value-add lies in connecting, understanding, and communicating.

This is the pathway to strategic advantage, as set out in the Integrated Review refresh, in which the intelligence community can become conveners and leaders to address the most complex, longitudinal, and emergent challenges. To do so, they must become more diverse, change their culture, be more open to new and different ways of working and thinking, be more adept at working in the open, and embrace and nurture different kinds of people and partnerships.

In this article, we set out the rationale for a new model for national security and the first steps to move towards it.

Why does the UK intelligence community need to change?​

We believe change is necessary now because:

  • The nature of data has changed – exponentially increasing in quantity, velocity and hyperconnectivity: the speed of relevance is now seconds or minutes rather than weeks or months. Combining data is the new gold, and the skills needed to gather, integrate, and interpret data have moved into the mainstream. Data is now a widely available commodity and is more easily accessed and used by the private sector than by government organisations, creating a new data paradigm where open-source intelligence can outperform traditional intelligence.
  • Government priorities have moved on – the threats we face today are more complex and diffuse than ever before – from climate change to economic prosperity, migration, public health, energy security, resilience, and ‘hybrid’ warfare. Tackling these challenges effectively means joining up the parts of government which hold the puzzle pieces, taking a more holistic view to seeking longer-term international advantage.
  • Trust in evidence and authority has shifted - while in the past it may have been acceptable for a single source to be accepted as truth, we are now in a post-modern era of investigative journalism, social media opinion, disinformation and deepfakes, and multiple conflicting voices – where government comes under far more scrutiny and challenge than ever before. There is both a need and expectation for more transparency to maintain credibility and confidence. Having a more visible and well-linked cross-government intelligence-sharing capability embedded across different organisations and sectors would help to increase trust that government is being inclusive in its thinking and exploring different perspectives and insights.
Because the strategic context has shifted, the UK’s intelligence community can no longer operate effectively in the way it has relied on previously. We need to reinvent national security to adapt to the modern era. Currently, intelligence agencies operate in intentionally closed silos, which make it difficult to share data and information, to innovate, and to access diverse ideas, with a culture that too often actively prevents engagement.

We know the appetite is there for more insights which can be shared openly or across government, and insights such as those produced by the Government Office for Science and the daily National Security Secretariat digest have much wider reach than traditional classified intelligence. As explained in the CETaS Expert Analysis article ‘National Security Innovation: Creating new capabilities for the future’, failing to innovate puts the strategic advantage in the hands of others who can respond faster, more effectively, and make better use of data than we can.

Staying ahead of the game will need sustained, co-ordinated, and substantial investment of people, funding, and effort – and more importantly enough buy-in to the overarching conviction that change is needed. But what changes are needed to create a new model for national security, and how will we get there?

A Manifesto for a UK Intelligence Future​

We envision a future intelligence community which is redefined and reorganised for the challenges of the 21st century. It needs to take a user-centred design approach, dedicated to providing the right information at the right time, at the right security classification, to the right government (and, potentially, industry) customer. This future organisation will have five key characteristics:

  • The UK remains at the forefront of national security data exploitation and insight and is a sought-after partner for our allies, thanks to our expertise, capabilities and strong ethical basis;
  • We have a well-established and effective system for acquiring, storing, protecting, authenticating, validating, analysing, classifying, and using good quality data from all legal sources, to inform decision-making at all levels;
  • We benefit from a modern, flexible and transparent regulatory environment which protects privacy while recognising the value of data sharing in preventing harm – for instance, by drawing on the learnings of the Caldicott principles in transforming the handling of medical data;
  • There is a distributed cross-sector national security ecosystem which is highly collaborative and inclusive, with people empowered to innovate and to act, and with strong sustainable partnerships between government, industry, and academia to create solutions together and influence policymaking, adding value through collective intelligence; and
  • The intelligence community is a diverse community with a sustained pipeline of skills where careers are designed to grow the people we need for the future, including moving in and out of sectors and sharing knowledge.
We are making several key assumptions in setting out this vision. We assume that the UK government will continue to have primary responsibility for national security over the next 10 years, and that national security threats will continue to evolve and emerge, often unpredictably. We assume that the UK will want to continue as a close partner of the Five Eyes alliance and especially the US, in a global system increasingly dominated by China and the East. We assume that current divisions between operating in the UK and abroad, and between defence and security and police organisations continue to blur, while the remit of national security will continue to broaden. And we assume that data volume and velocity continue to increase exponentially.

We imagine intelligence becoming a ‘golden thread’ embedded in and informed by other sectors and policy areas – such as health, energy, economy, technology, transport, education, welfare, and commerce (all of which will be similarly transformed by the cross-cutting data revolution). National security moves away from being a sector in its own right, to a ‘lens’ applied to broader sectoral challenges – for example considering the security challenges and opportunities posed by the UK’s investments in space, quantum, energy, AI, semiconductors and other technologies alongside the wider social and economic opportunities.

We need an integrated approach to skills, education (especially in the higher education sector), immigration, careers, and people. We think there is huge potential value in applying ‘collective intelligence’ tools and approaches to joining up people and data and yield value from a wider range of perspectives and sources than ever before, providing review, triangulation and challenges alongside traditional intelligence gathering and interpretation and reducing the potential for groupthink.

We are proposing flipping the model of national security away from one where national security is done only by some cleared people in highly centralised, closed, organisations, to one which is open, collaborative, and joined up by design. This future model should be highly distributed, with government national security teams and ‘reserves’ being embedded in other organisations and sectors (including businesses and universities) and plugged into their operations, with a much smaller core doing what only government can or should do. This small centre is able to draw together ideas and people, set and maintain standards of work across the sectors, and hold external partners to account.

There are huge benefits to national security from making these changes. Having a government-wide ability to gather and analyse data from across sectors, leverage best practice from one to another and draw conclusions based on multiple data sources would transform government strategic and decision-making capabilities – including developing and applying data science tools to parse large unstructured data sets.

As a result, government would be better able to spot and respond to emerging threats and opportunities in a way which is directly plugged into the organisations and expertise needed to effect change. Specific benefits include:

  • More innovative and novel solutions to some of the biggest problems facing our society, spotting emerging threats quicker and helping to achieve national security objectives and secure advantage including proactively mitigating risk and rapidly responding to new situations;
  • More effective and efficient decision-making across government through a more comprehensive assessment of risks and potential responses drawn from a wider range of information sources, reducing cognitive bias and groupthink effects by exposing more people to security challenges, and broadening the prevailing national security culture;
  • Increased flexibility and scale to react and adapt to emerging threats, scaling up and down rapidly as needed to increase or decrease capacity. This could reduce pressure on the bottleneck of recruitment into the intelligence agencies, thereby increasing resilience in the UK as a whole. It can also help to educate more people about the need to consider security as an aspect of their role – raising the bar on helping others outside the usual security communities to be security-minded;
  • Greater breadth and diversity of thought and background through engaging and educating more people in aspects of security outside the existing community, including through the embedded national security teams who will have deep understanding of their parent sector;
  • Empowering public servants to help themselves through provision of data, tools, methodologies, and frameworks, upskilling them and helping them discover new networks, links and related areas, increasing staff productivity, motivation and retention;
  • Embedding an innovative, learning and continually improving culture by incentivising collaboration, communication, and engagement; and
  • Cost-saving by reducing the number of permanent public servants needed and relying more on external expertise surged as needed.
Of course, there are risks too. Many reading this bold call for change will ask ‘what about keeping things secure that need to stay secret?’ or ‘how will we stop what we are thinking falling into the hands of adversaries?’. We are not proposing doing away with national security, or with secrets. But there is a balance to strike, where a too risk-averse approach to staying secret prevents effectiveness and fails to achieve the outcomes which are needed.

Secrecy itself is not a barrier to operating more broadly: big multinational businesses have secrets which they need to keep secure, and thanks to secure cloud infrastructure, security controls and managed access are able to operate their businesses across sectors, borders and levels of security. Technology poses both an opportunity and a threat: and while the digital revolution is a driver for change, it also offers opportunities to solve these kinds of challenges.

How will we create this new UK intelligence model?​

This is a huge shift and cannot be achieved overnight. We propose transformation in stages towards the target operating model achieving the vision set out above, giving time for the culture to adapt. An interim state could be a ‘hub and spoke’ model with a much smaller central core which continues to hold specific responsibilities for traditional intelligence, legislation, regulation and compliance – eventually reducing to a minimal ‘irreduceable core’. Gradually, the ‘spokes’ should grow to become the main driver and activator of intelligence activities, supported by a common framework of design principles, managed security access, data infrastructure and operating models, while leaving each spoke free to develop their own sector-specific models and policies.


Even in the interim there is huge value that can be gained quickly. A good exemplar of an iterative approach is the Government Digital Service (GDS), which starts small, finding meaningful examples, learns from experience, focuses on user needs, and iterates. This can be seen in blended cross-government teams during the Covid-19 pandemic, and in the GDS’ global work in Cyprus.

The national security community can learn from these methodologies and apply them. Starting to create networked communities bringing together government, academics and industry to co-create solutions – for example through the National Security Technology and Innovation Exchange (NSTIx) – can help to empower parts of government to work better together and to create new partnerships. And we can start to harness the value of existing ecosystems by being transparent and inclusive around priorities and problem sets – for example in health security and food security.

The Way Forward​

The next Spending Review is an opportunity to start setting out how national security will support government priorities as a whole, and create the headroom to join up teams embedded in priority sectors. An initial taskforce and pilot study can be set up at relatively small cost, to prove the concept, design operating models and address barriers. And the best way to start, is to get started – to set up a cadre of forward-thinking national security practitioners to start working in these ways, seconded in and embedded into relevant organisations and with a clear remit and set of aims, measures, and parallel learning and evaluation to create feedback loops and to learn quickly.

This needs strong leadership buy-in and multi-year commitment to make it successful, and opportunities for more to get involved and benefit – personally and professionally – so they see it as the future, and not something to be rejected as a threat to comfortable ways of working.

If we get this right, there are huge benefits and opportunities for the UK – and if we fail to act the national security community risks dwindling into insignificance. Which way do we want to go?

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of The Alan Turing Institute or any other organisation.


Dr Lucy Mason

Jason M


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