Written Evidence from Apolitical

Strategic thinking in government:
an individual and institutional capability

November 2023


In its Call for Evidence, the Committee highlights the structures and processes which help (or hinder) good strategic thinking in government. We believe there is an additional perspective that is an important part of the conversation: individual capability.


In our course on applying strategic thinking in government, the first point we make to learners is that good strategic plans — whether policy-focused or organisational — emerge from good strategic thinking. And good strategic thinking starts with people (individuals and groups).


The Civil Service needs to cultivate a culture of strategic thinking, one that is long-termist, open-minded, systemic, and flexible in the face of inherent uncertainty. Civil servants need support to build this capability — to learn how to do systems thinking, explore future scenarios or mitigate their cognitive biases, for example. That is civil servants at all levels of government. Hugely complex policy challenges, particularly Net Zero, require concerted action across and throughout government. The work of small teams responsible for central strategy can be enhanced if their colleagues planning and making decisions at a more tactical level understand their intent and approach.


When polling and interviewing civil servants globally, this is what we’ve learned about their perspective on strategic thinking:

        When polled at a March 2023 event, 77% of public servants agreed that everyone in government should use strategic thinking, but less than 50% said that they have the time to think strategically.

        Even more foundationally than having the time to think strategically, we find that public servants often lack a practical grasp of strategic thinking. This discussion thread[1], initiated by a UK civil servant, helps illustrate the point.

        In user interviews with UK civil servants, we have learned that there is a dearth of good learning materials on strategic thinking in the government context.

        Our November 2023 global poll of 750 public servants (including over 200 from the UK) found that the most important climate topic they want to learn about is coordinating action across government, illustrating the Committee’s point about cross-departmental action being a key node of strategic thinking in government.


[1] Note, for data protection reasons, clicking on the link provided will only give you an anonymised version of the conversation thread.