Liaison Sub-Committee on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government – Call for Evidence on Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government


Dr Ian C. Elliott response to consultation


I am an Associate Professor of Public Leadership and Management at Northumbria University and the current Honorary Chair of the UK Joint University Council. My research interests centre particularly on the concept of the strategic state.


I have defined the Strategic State as “a whole-of-government approach to the design and delivery of public services which links a shared long-term vision with the collective capacity, capability and conviction to make it happen” (Elliott, 2023: 85). This longitudinal research project explores the establishment and development (2008-2015) and review and impact (2016-2023) of the strategic state in Scotland.


Through this research I have shown how the strategic state was developed within the Scottish Government from 2008. The development of the strategic state was influenced by the findings of the Taking Stock review (2006[1]), as well as by the leadership of the Permanent Secretary at the time, and the position of the incoming SNP administration (following their election as a minority administration in 2008). As such the development of the strategic state can be seen as part of a wider, UK-level ecosystem of public service improvement at the time, whilst having a particular Scottish flavour.


The strategic state was built on three key reforms: the development of an outcomes-based approach to government supported by a National Performance Framework; a restructured Civil Service with Directors-General responsible for individual outcomes; and significant investment in professional development of civil servants particularly relating to public value and adaptive leadership. Key to the success of these reforms was the supportive political environment, strong administrative leadership, and a clear vision for the change.

I have found that these reforms created a distinctly Scottish Approach to government and demonstrated competence and proficiency in matters of governance. This is demonstrated in the consistently high levels of public trust and strong election performance from the SNP (Elliott, 2020).


More recently I have found that the initial investment has waned over time and moves to widen the scope of the strategic approach from a ‘whole-of-government’ to ‘whole-of-society’ approach without increased investment, particularly in learning and development activities, have placed greater pressure on the aspiration to be a strategic state. There are challenges around capacity and capability – in relation to workforce planning, talent management and broader education, training and development. Finally, the administrative leadership and clear vision that were present in the initial development of the NPF have diminished over time (Elliott, 2023).


This research offers important lessons for any government seeking to develop a more strategic approach to policymaking and implementation.





Elliott, I. C. (2020) The implementation of a strategic state in a small country setting—the case of the ‘Scottish Approach’, Public Money & Management, 40:4, 285-293, DOI: 10.1080/09540962.2020.1714206

Elliott, I. C. (2023). "Chapter 6: The strategic state: a case study of devolved government in Scotland". In Handbook on Strategic Public Management. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing. Retrieved Oct 3, 2023, from

[1] The Taking Stock review was an external review of the performance of the Scottish Executive (as it was then) following the approach of the departmental Capability Reviews that were taking place throughout Whitehall Departments at that time. See also:

Cabinet Office (2009) Assessment of the Capability Review programme”. HC 123 Session 2008-2009. London: NAO.

Parry, R. (2011). “Chapter 15: The United Kingdom civil service: a devolving system. In Massey, A. (Eds.). (2011). International Handbook on Civil Service Systems. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing.