Scrutiny of Strategic Thinking in Government: Liaison Committee Call for Evidence


Submitted by Pamela Dow, COO of Civic Future and former Senior Civil Servant.


Why I am submitting evidence: As a former Principal Private Secretary in the Department for Education (2010-2014), Director of Strategy in the Ministry of Justice (2015-17), and Director of Reform Strategy then Executive Director of the Government Skills Campus in the Cabinet Office (2019-22), I have relevant experience of how strategy is defined, devised and executed in Whitehall. 


Last year I joined former Director of the No10 Policy Unit, Munira Mirza, to establish Civic Future, with the goal of attracting and training a broader talent pool for public life (defined broadly). Civic Future’s programmes are shaped by our combined experience of the problems in government, and how to solve them.


Many others have submitted excellent evidence to the Committee, which I would rather commend than duplicate: Dr Keith Dear’s and Lord Robertson’s analysis and recommendations are especially accurate, comprehensive, and useful.



In my experience discussions of improving strategic thinking in government rarely conclude because of the diversionary appeal of defining terms. These discussions can be fascinating and are important, but they can become indulgent and a risk when enjoyed for too long. Subsequent risks, when definitions finally reach some consensus, include a) confusing what is rightly the role of politicians and rightly the role of the civil service, and b) conflating the ends of strategy with the ways and means. I have restricted my evidence to precise examples and practical opportunities to improve. These can be summarised as improved communication and improved competence.


The WHAT of strategy: who sets it, and how

Strategy has to be set by the elected government or we are not a democracy. Incoming governments have the greatest opportunity to set Grand Strategy and strategic approach[1], and to communicate and explain these effectively.


In his recent book, Rory Stewart recounts his frustration as Minister for International Development, repeatedly encountering official opposition to his attempts to stop funding local organisations which act against UK interests, and to divert funding towards those which act for it. It is likely that his departmental teams did not understand the government’s aid funding strategy, within the greater Grant Strategy of strategic defence and security, or realise that his requests were executing it. Helping official teams, often comprising junior or new civil servants, requires significant effort from Departmental leadership, political and permanent, especially where strategy has changed. It is the Civil Service’s job to understand - fully - a new Government’s goals, assumptions, and choices, and to work through the implications of this for all activity. Iain Mansfield, former civil servant and special adviser, describes this well in relation to his experience in the Department for Education:


One time when the Government was considering implementing a national scholarship scheme, with bursaries for students from poor backgrounds who achieved very high scores on their A-Levels, the civil servant responsible called me and told me they were having a really hard time writing the submission, because no-one in their team could understand why ministers would want to do such a thing (i.e. only giving it to high achievers from poor backgrounds, rather than to everyone from a poor background)(1).


Similarly, one time I was speaking to a dozen or so civil servants working on family policy, some of them quite senior. I asked whether any of them had read David Goodhart’s book, The Road to Somewhere. None of them had. Now this was a relatively recent best-selling book, and Goodhart is one of the leading UK writers on family in the right-of-centre space. I’m not saying I’d expect all of them would have read it, but the fact that none of them had is telling. Civil Servants do read political books, quite often, but I guess if all of your friends and colleagues are reading Tony Blair’s autobiography, or Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland, rather than books written by anyone on the right, that shapes what you yourself read.[2]


Cabinet, Ministers, and their political teams, are not investing enough time together, discussing and agreeing their strategic purpose - e.g. in education, security, welfare, energy, or growth - and then, crucially, understanding and communicating the many, detailed, implications of these. One useful way to do this is by illustrating ‘strategic bets’, which show what choices have been made, between many equally legitimate but mutually exclusive options. Prioritising AI safety over AI expansion, or national energy self-sufficiency over cost, have clear implications for every department’s governance, procurement, policy and spending teams, but people won’t know these by osmosis.


The No10 Policy Unit, Permanent Secretaries, Directors of Policy, and Special Adviser network, rarely - if ever - spend time discussing the government’s strategic goals and choices implied in every area of policy and operation. Even more rare are concerted, consistent efforts to communicate these across the 450k strong system of government. It’s not surprising that Ministers perceive the permanent civil service as blocking their goals; their departmental teams may not have any idea how these goals influence their work.


The HOW of strategy: who executes it, and how

Perhaps surprisingly for this Inquiry, ‘strategy’ is a high status pursuit in Whitehall departments. ‘Director of Strategy’ is a prestigious role, and working on a strategy team is the goal of ambitious officials. Unfortunately there is no common vocational skill of strategy in government. There is not even a common role description for Director of Strategy. Some are enhanced Principal Private Secretaries, running a flexible working group for a de facto extended Ministerial Office. Some run an internal consultancy overseeing novel projects. Others run governance or resource allocation and reporting for the executive team. A range of consultancies, universities and other providers are employed to teach strategy in each department, and centrally (procured through the central learning and development frameworks). None are wrong, though there is no central quality control or evaluation. The problem is the proliferation of different terminology, models, and tools. Nothing like the Royal College of Defence Studies course[3] exists to train all senior civil servants, or junior equivalents, in basic terms and practice. As a result, what passes for strategy effort across Whitehall is often atomistic, repetitive, abstract, irrelevant, and wasteful. Jonathan Shaw describes this well in the Whitehall chapter of his 2015 book, Britain in a Perilous World. Teams that have learned and trained together, over time, according to common rubric, can assemble swiftly and effectively in response to a particular need.[4] They follow a set of handrails with unconscious competence, and quickly assign ownership and accountability for necessary tasks and functions.


My experience of working with military planners in the period 2019-2021, on Brexit preparedness and then Covid response, was their twofold superiority to Whitehall strategists. First, they were swift and precise in interpreting strategy into effective plans, and second, they were effective in turning plans into action quickly. They could do this because they had been drilled in a vocational practice, following a tested and shared method. They did not separate policy from operation, or strategy from delivery, but assigned these in precise responsibilities within a multidisciplinary team. We relied on them because this leadership and management competence was in short supply in the Civil Service. I invited Jonathan Shaw to expand on his 2015 book at a Permanent Secretary seminar in 2021, where he outlined the importance of shared methodology as deployed for Counter Terrorism:   Doctrine (unifying language); Process (common, clear, decision making structures); Expertise (domain understanding, combined for comprehensive tactical and long-term competence; Culture (accepted and respected ways of working). All government activity in pursuit of effective strategy would be improved with the application of a mandatory shared method along these lines.


My previous role established the first Government Skills and Curriculum Unit, the Campus for training in government, underpinned by a common curriculum, and comprising a Leadership College, College for National Security, and reformed graduate and other entry programmes. This is not the only structure for improving shared vocational skills for government[5]. But it is one way, and a comprehensive way. The recent history of the civil service is a story of many attempts to improve skills which are then abandoned or diluted when Ministerial momentum is lost, only to begin from first principles once more when the next Minister or Cabinet Secretary makes this a priority. This guarantees waste, low morale, and lack of progress.


The SCRUTINY of strategy: who evaluates success or failure


I agree with Dr Keith Dear’s final recommendation: the most useful service the Liaison Committee could provide is a short, succinct, checklist for all Committees to use in scrutinising Government policy for evidence of a truly strategic approach. Every Committee report might have a strategy scorecard, and written assessment of whether the strategy, policy or plan defines its terms and is what it claims to be. Over time, such persistent evaluation might itself begin to change the incentives of Ministers and Civil Servants, by seeking to highlight just how many of our strategies are not actually strategies, with the aim that this is no longer regarded as acceptable until such time as failed policy is scrutinised in retrospect.


This will only be possible if the ‘What’ and ‘How’ are deliberately and transparently pursued, as outlined above.



28 September 2022             




Government Skills Agenda: Status Update


  1. The Government Skills and Curriculum Unit (GSCU) was established in 2020, tasked with:


    1. A Campus - (the ‘how’) and curriculum (the ‘what’), for all knowledge, skills and training for the Civil Service: clarity, precision, accessibility, and assurance, provided in the physical and virtual government estate (UK-wide);
    2. The Leadership College for Government - a high quality and coherent portfolio of programmes for leaders and future leaders in the Civil Service, and wider public sector. Including definition and assurance of a leadership and management curriculum;
    3. Reformed Fast Stream and Emerging Talent Routes - aligning early entry and progression routes to the new skills standards e.g. schools outreach, internships, higher quality and relevant apprenticeships, and a graduate entry and Fast Stream programme which serves all the corporate functions and meets the government’s current and future workforce needs;
    4. A College for National Security, the Integrated Review commitment to build collective capability for HMG NS policy development and delivery: x-Union; engaging business, industry, academia and think tanks; and exhibiting ‘soft power’ with allies (and adversaries).

This paper sets out progress to date and key priorities for the year ahead.



  1. Note the achievements to date, and imminent activity; give feedback as necessary on priorities.



  1. The GSCU was established with a mission of ensuring suitably qualified and experienced civil servants, through a ‘properly resourced Campus for training in Government’. It brought together for the first time all the central teams - and levers, e.g. the training procurement frameworks - which define and deliver collective or selective civil service training and L&D: schools outreach, apprenticeships, Fast Stream, accelerated leadership programmes (including activity for public sector leaders).
  2. Our first milestone, Better Training, Knowledge and Networks: the New Curriculum and Campus for Government Skills, was published in January 2021. This has underpinned all work to shape demand and assure supply, overseen by a x-Departmental ‘Design Authority’.

  1. Our 2021/22 achievements included:

        designing and making accessible a core induction for all new civil servants

        making clear, precise and accessible all professional capability frameworks

        ensuring clarity, coherence and assurance in management training and leadership development, within a new Leadership College for Government

        discovery and early stage design for Campus Online, to replace the unpopular and limited Civil Service Learning/Learning Platform for Government

        a new SCS Data Masterclass, FutureLearn hosted with on and offline elements

        Fast Stream reform to ensure that the entirety of the programme, from induction to graduation, is focused on clear purpose and need, and rigorous capability

        Ministerial induction and training.

6.  In September 2021 we were successful in making the case for a Spending Review commitment of £26m CDEL over three years, to realise the full Campus reform and infrastructure goals. The £26m investment case was for a system-wide improvement to reduce duplication, improve delivery quality, and increase capability, across a 460k strong workforce and £1bn government spending. HMT’s expectation was that this would realise real savings of £26m by year three.  We are reviewing plans as part of the wider review initiated by the new GCPO Fiona Ryland. The aim is to structure the central teams to deliver priority functions, and to match funding to the delivery of agreed strategic goals, with full transparency and accountability.


7. Much has been achieved in establishing the Campus since September 2020, with credit to an ever-expanding network of experts across all sectors. All 43 measurable commitments from our 21/22 Business Plan were completed, including:


Induction to the Civil Service

8. Created in January 2022 on the FutureLearn platform, over 10,000 new civil servants have now completed, reporting a consistent 50-60 percentage point increase in confidence across 8 areas of knowledge (tested in each module). The Campus contract with FutureLearn allows us to enrol on courses at £6 per head (40-50x cheaper than sending someone on an equivalent 1-day course). Depts and Professions now take advantage of this collective purchasing power, using the platform to design and deliver bespoke products. FutureLearn receives superb UX feedback and saves public money by using 100% internally-generated training materials.

Campus Online

9. Our goal is a truly modern and global leading digital learning platform for the Civil Service, shaping demand and assuring supply of all L&D, training and skills for our workforce.


10. Campus Online discovery and alpha phases led to two online products, now being tested. Project teams working on skills capture for the Civil Service workforce, and those designing the Campus Online learning platform are now combined as one project.


Fast Stream and Emerging Talent
11. This has been a period of huge delivery and ambitious reform for graduate and non-graduate recruitment to the Civil Service, and a significant period of change for the Fast Stream programme. Delivery included 45k applicants to the Fast Stream in 2021, with rigorous assessment and meritocratic recruitment and an independent review of our Fast Stream Assessment Centre process.  Outreach shifted to an even broader range of Universities and targeted applicants from STEM subject backgrounds.  In 2021/22 we matched c1900 Fast Streamers across four year groups to 44 departments and 70 secondments. New Generalist Fast Streamers participated in a foundation data and digital skills pilot; this and other curriculum enhancements will be implemented in 2022/23. From the central recruitment process 693 Direct Appointment Scheme candidates were matched to priority HEO and EO roles to meet workforce needs. We now have more transparent headcount reporting, and a new Fast Stream operating model. Following a successful trial, from September those on the Fast Stream scheme will be performance and daily managed by their placement task managers, not the central cohort managers (who will focus on overall coherence, quality and consistency).

12. The 2022 Fast Stream induction ‘Base Camp’ (hybrid) is redesigned with an emphasis on strands 1 and 2 of the curriculum - 3 days of virtual,1.5 days of face to face training, over two events (over 200 existing civil servants are involved in 'paying it forward' in training - speakers, seminars, market stalls and subject matter experts on design).

13. We secured commitment from departments to host 100 T-Level Industry Placements by the end of 2022, with 250 delivered by the end of 2023.

14. We lead the 2022-25 Civil Service apprenticeship strategy and central provider contracts, working across government to ensure a shared understanding of, and commitment to, quality, and relevance, and using the Apprenticeship Levy well for upskilling existing staff. Now focused on supporting departments to implement in line with best practice guidance and a quality assessment framework. (CS currently has 16,664 on-programme apprentices in all regions, including the devolved administrations).

15. We have also delivered c900 internships in 2022, helping employability of young people from all backgrounds.

Strand 2 - Ministerial and parliamentary training

16. Designed to support private offices to induct their ministers, bolstering departmental efforts to embed new teams following reshuffles and elections. May 2021 marked the first ever conference of over 700 private office professionals. We hosted the second in June 2022 with the Policy Profession. Core and bespoke products are now available for use.

17. Since April 2022 the Parliamentary capability team has delivered 102 workshops/events with 4326 attendees, 785 completions of e-learning courses, 1623 downloads of desk aids and Parliamentary Insights, a popular podcast.

Strand 3 - Leadership College for Government (LCG)

18. Established in April 2022, the LCG united a previously disparate array of activities to support current and future Civil Service and public sector leaders (including Accelerated Development Schemes, Civil Service Leadership Academy, National Leadership Centre).


19. In June 2022 we published the first prospectus, (‘Leading to Deliver’) which defines a unifying curriculum and set of standards to provide clarity, precision, and accessibility of  management and leadership knowledge, skills, qualities and networks.

20. We have designed and tested a Foundation Management programme this year, with 5 early adopter cohorts (across 9 Depts). We expect 15k Civil Service delegates over the next year. Management capability is increasingly cited as a contributor to low productivity and unnecessary system cost, so competence in this is vital to a smaller, leaner Civil Service.

Strand 4 - Specialist Training

21. With 28 Professions and 14 Functions we have captured the capability frameworks for specialist training, for the first time. These support the goal of ‘raising the floor and the ceiling’, and encouraging disciplinary range, at Awareness, Working, Practitioner, and Expert levels.

Strand 5 - Domain Knowledge

22. This is led by Departments and Professions, and progressing at different paces. DfE is a leader in providing new core knowledge modules for staff this year, and DEFRA is developing a similar ‘citizenship test’ type domain knowledge expectation. There is a role at the centre for signposting and even designing x-cutting products where necessary. This year with BEIS and DEFRA we led a climate and the environment awareness course, interactive and bite-sized, explaining core knowledge for all to understand the government’s climate change agenda.

23. The College for National Security is an Integrated Review commitment, announced by Ministers in March 2022 to promote policy and delivery capabilities across the national security community in both Civil and Crown Services. Incubated within the Campus on behalf of the National Security Adviser, we have secured ‘seed funding’ from 22 Depts, Devolved Administrations, and Agencies. As we prove the concept in preparation for the final Business Case in late 2023, we have established collective governance, developed concepts for five products, and trialled first training. We also have a strategic partnership with the Australian National Security College.



24. Our Evaluation strategy is a system enabler, led initially by a - free - secondee from the Cambridge Science and Policy programme. This will improve impact measurement in the Campus and beyond. Well communicated and embedded it will ensure a common framework for comparative evaluation and assessment of value for money.

25. For a comprehensive account of planned delivery this year, if resources permit, please see Annex A.


26. In 2020 the total headcount of the teams combined to create GSCU was 400+. At the beginning of 2022 we had reduced to c300, achieving more, with more system-wide impact. Since May this year however we have reduced by a further 20% through attrition and recruitment controls. We no longer have the resources we need to deliver on all of our commitments and future plans. The Campus infrastructure, online and physical, is particularly at risk of under-delivery. 


27. Our ambitious delivery plan for 2022/23 will be reviewed by the incoming Chief People Officer to assess feasibility and desirability of the Campus programme alongside other CSHR commitments and within the resource envelope, now being reconsidered by new CO ministers.


ANNEX - current commitments

Fast Stream and Emerging Talent

    1. To conclude 2022/23 pay negotiations with the TU and submit a multi year pay flex Fast Streamer Pay business case by December 2022.
    2. To onboard the 2022 intake of Fast Streamers onto the programme by October 2022.
    3. To start delivery of the Beyond Boundaries programme by November 2022.
    4. To start the implementation phase of Fast Stream Reform by March 2023.
    5. To evaluate the internship delivery model, including entry criteria for the internship and outreach programmes by December 2022.
    6. To lead the design and implementation of the Civil Service Schools and FE Outreach strategy by March 2023.
    7. To roll out departmental and profession implementation plans for Civil Service Apprenticeships, monitoring and reporting performance against the new strategy measures by March 2023.
    8. Review Civil Service apprenticeship standards and establish ways of embedding knowledge and skills into existing apprenticeships to ensure a cadre of government administrators with the skills to perform anywhere in our complex system by December 2022.

Campus and Curriculum

    1. To map demand for face to face training across the Government Campus and, working with Government Property Agency, map potential Government owned estate so that we can better align demand and supply of high quality training estate by March 2023.
    2. To develop a modular Digital Excellence Programme and start initial pilots by January 2023.
    3. To initiate the process of re-tendering the Learning Frameworks by March 2023.
    4. To increase and enhance the core Parliamentary Capability curriculum and deliver a programme of Ministerial Training throughout FY2022/23.
    5. To assure the impact of our whole GSCU spend, through evidence-based design and robust evaluation throughout FY2022/23.

College for National Security

    1. To prioritise demands for delivery of the five CfNS ‘offers’ given delivery team is two against expected five. We expect a focus on the National Security Curriculum throughout FY2022/23 as the offer with largest impact, piloting National Security Case Studies, and options for shared high classification teaching estate. Swift delivery of the Mid Career Certificate in National Security is not possible with the team of 2.
    2. To develop the International Strategy and Security Fellowships throughout FY2022/23, possible pilots by end of period.

Leadership College for Government

    1. To maintain, redesign and create a new delivery model for cross-government accelerated development programmes for grades 7 - SCS2 between December 2022 to March 2023. Includes the redesigned HPDS, the programme for talented directors (working with Blavatnik School for Government and a consortium of expert suppliers).
    2. To pilot the four new leadership and management programmes for roll out across the Civil Service by April 2023.
    3. To deliver the revised Induction programme for Deputy Directors and Directors throughout FY2022/23.
    4. To provide strategic support and delivery for the Civil Service Leadership Group (CSLG) throughout FY2022/23. Support to this group has had to be reduced due to recruitment controls and will reduce further if controls remain in place.
    5. To deliver a revised leadership development curriculum that brings Civil Service and wider public sector leaders together to build skills, knowledge and networks by Autumn 2022.




[1] I aim to use Dr Keith Dear’s definitions throughout.



[4] Note by sub-committee: Jonathan Shaw was appointed as a specialist adviser to the sub-committee on 18 October 2023.

[5] See page 4 for more details.