Collective Education & Training for the Civil Service


In the enduring conversation about the way the Civil Service operates, rarely discussed is how we deliberately turn individual civil servants into a collective service. It may be that the modern emphasis on the rights of the individual - hence civil servants choosing to apply for jobs rather than the best being selected - and extracting apparent value for money - notoriously hard to define in a hypothecated way for educational interventions - has militated against collective expenses such as generic education and training. I hesitate to introduce some military referenced thinking here as that does tend to release a wave of antibodies down Whitehall, even within the MOD: when Mark Sedwill introduced Fusion Doctrine any initial stickiness was around the use of the D word. But I do so because the military does have to think through how it operates collectively, as it often has to do so rapidly, from a standing start, and then usually in stressed and dangerous situations. In the last few years an organisation I had under command - The Defence Academy, including the Royal College of Defence Studies (RCDS) on Belgrave Square, London - started educating beyond the military and MOD, running short courses collectively that took students from many departments. I believe the results might be illuminating.


It is vital to the military that it can work jointly across the individual Services and within international coalitions, and so it goes as far as to define the essential strands of interoperability: a shared body of knowledge and accepted good practice; an understanding of the ways that the personnel of the various agencies think and function; and, where necessary, shared equipment, or accepted standards for such, in order that these agencies can interact seamlessly. The obvious manifestations of this are in shared bodies of Doctrine, the swapping of international students across staff colleges (two-thirds of the RDCS annual cohort comprises overseas students) and the mandating of NATO standards (STANAGS) for all manner of equipment, but especially communications systems.


As a result of the above a rapidly formed international military HQ can problem solve using the NATO Planning Process, its thinking and subsequent orders and instructions are formatted in ways instantly decipherable by all, and disseminated transparently and rapidly by fully interoperable communications nets. But such methodology is also used to make manifest enduring peacetime policies and strategies such as the NATO Defence of the Atlantic Area and its modern War-fighting Concept. Here the parallels with UK Govt policy formulation and strategy execution might be more apposite.


But here is also where the friction begins. It is not just in the Civil Service that the word doctrinereleases antibodies. I have heard very senior officers - usually RAF or Royal Navy - decry the term and for reasons the CS would recognise. Doctrineis very close in some minds to doctrinaire, and so fundamentally limiting, reducing seniors to little more than executors of someone elses (limited and predictable) old-school thinking. As an ex DG Joint Force Development, and so responsible for doctrine production across the UK Military (and 25% of NATOs output, sub-contracted), I know this to be false.


Doctrine is no more than what is currently taught as best practice. Is there a profession that doesnt teach best practice? Would any of us wish to be a patient in an operating theatre where the surgeon, and all the subordinate technicians, were making it up as they went along? And as in medicine, that there are accepted basic protocols of surgical practice in no way limits medical research more broadly, or individual surgical interventions that may need to make specific divergences to deal with unique complaints. And so all military campaigns are based around fundamental doctrines, the basic building blocks, of NATOs way in war and the expensive equipment whose purchase was justified to enable it. Precise operational designs, formed around objectives, geography and the opposition, can take a thousand imaginative forms.


It is a founding assumption of this paper - crafted in concert with others submitted by the Strategy Group - that UK Government would be better placed to deal with a range of long-term strategic issues if it could coordinate better across government departments and take a long-term view: accommodating the rise of China, and achieving energy security while dealing with climate change represent incredibly complex pan-departmental challenges requiring such a proactively coordinated approach. Those two challenges can be seen as being at least as complicated and complex as a significant war. If wartime challenges require is to suspend the usual politicking and pull-together more deliberately, efficiently and effectively, then might that be a sound approach for peacetime challenges that are, nevertheless, somewhere on the scale of existential?


Such coordination across departments will be made much more difficult if they have different assumptions on planning horizons, disparate approaches to the linking of policy to delivery, and even individual lexicons and definitions. When it has previously been politically necessary to achieve such coordination, as with the persistent counter-terrorism effort run under Office of Security and Counter Terrorism in the Home Office, ways have been found. Indeed, such examples tend to support the militarys description of interoperability mentioned earlier: personnel were regularly swapped between departments and intelligence agencies to spread shared understanding, best practice was codified and evolved in the light of a significant threat, and even technical interoperability was achieved through one of the earliest and best examples of pan-department data-base sharing. Trawling data and cross-referencing for insights is a foundational doctrine of successful counter-terrorism that could be usefully transferred to many other government competencies.


That was all made easier because the agencies involved - from GCHQ via the Met police to the UK Special Forces Group - all have an operational bias and many have attended defence and security leadership courses run by the UK Defence Academy. Could this transfer to less security-oriented departments of state?


The evidence from RCDS and its Virtual National Security Academy (VNSA) is that it can. Though many of those departments who sent personnel were already on the periphery of national security, even those traditionally not so, such as transport, have acquired significant security responsibilities since 9/11. The pandemic only reinforced this trend. Despite the virtual nature of the VNSA, and its out of hideresourcing, the limited number of courses run each year were always well-attended and were validated very highly by those attendees. Crucially, they were supported by very senior leaders, from the NSA himself (then Mark Sedwill) down.


Set up following the SDSR of 2015, the RCDS element of the VNSA was one of the few that got itself properly established. The Integrated Review of 2021 looked at many options for a non-virtual college to expand and improve what had gone before. But funds for the perfectsolution were not forthcoming and that scuppered solutions that could well have been good enough. Nevertheless, RCDS has since 2018 trained several hundred SCS students, from across Whitehall, on short strategy courses. A new module - Strategy Pilot- is currently being rolled out, with MODs Strategy Hub and SONAC its first test-customer. The blueprint is now proven.


There are several spin-offs from a properly established educational offer for Civil Service leaders:


The first is that it could make a virtue of the problem of too much churn in the Service, with people broadeningacross jobs in several departments but also diluting the base of specialist knowledge for which the CS used to be famed. Via a shared college, cross-departmental experience could be discussed and shared in much the same manner that it is by officers with Joint and/or international experience who prove to be so valuable at military staff colleges.


If a college is going to have to teach then it is going to have to create a syllabus. A syllabus is essentially a spin-off of doctrine - often defined as that which is taught- and so the Service will have to ask itself where its best practice is to be found.


and allied to the above, there will be a vehicle for recording best practice and the lessons of events; just as militaries have extensive lessons-learnedorganisations for assessing what worked and what didnt during the various operations it has conducted. Only recently it has become apparent that, for example, there is no lessons learned report from the successful HS1 programme to inform those running HS2. Similarly, how successful departmental coordination was achieved during the British International Overseas Territories(Caribbean) hurricane relief operation in 2017 appears to have been forgotten over the four years between it and the evacuation of Kabul in 2021.


On such a campus we would have a vehicle for educating and training ministers in a safe environment. There is little point in departments working better if the ministers dont understand the machine for which they are responsible, or cannot play their part in coordinating within it. This, too, has been successfully tested in small scale at RCDS.


So, in sum, the argument of this short paper is that if we wish for better long-term coordination of strategy in action across the Executive then we must deliberately think on what the collective good looks like. And if the execution of a workable approach depends, as it always does, on the leadership and the collective management of those responsible then we should educate and train them to work in a coordinated way. All professions have some form of college or academy for post-graduate development of the individuals severally and, thereby and as a function of shared standards, the profession collectively. It is time for the Civil Service to create similar.


E J Stringer

Air Marshal (Retd)

2 Nov 23