Liaison Committee

Sub-committee on scrutiny of strategic thinking in government

Private meeting, Thatcher Room, 5 December 2023



Sub-committee Members:

Sir Bernard Jenkin (BJ), Harriet Baldwin (HB), Clive Betts (CB), Dame Diana Johnson (DJ), Iain Stewart (IS)

Robert Courts (RC) also attended but had not been formally appointed to the sub-committee.

Specialist Advisers:

Jonathan Shaw (JS), Cat Tully (CT)

Invited guests:

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (LF), [Redacted], Lord Robertson of Port Ellen (LR), Lord Sedwill (LS), Sir Patrick Vallance (PV), Professor Alexander Evans, Professor in Practice in Public Policy, London School of Economics (AE), Sophie Howe, formerly Future Generations Commissioner for Wales (SH), Jill Rutter, Senior Fellow, Institute for Government (JR), Alex Thomas, Programme Director, Institute for Government (AT), [Redacted], Sophie Daud, Chief Executive Officer, Future Leaders Network (SD)

Note: This meeting was held in private. Contributors have since been asked if they are content for their comments to be published, and where they are not content, those comments have been redacted.

Summary note

The Chair (BJ) welcomed everyone, including those joining online, and described the meeting as assisting the sub-committee to scope out the inquiry in advance of taking oral evidence.

He outlined the three areas the inquiry was likely to focus on:

  1. What strategy and strategic thinking is?
  2. How is strategic thinking embedded into the civil service at all levels, and what does that mean for training and cultural change?
  3. What does that mean for the machinery of government?

The Chair invited thoughts on these questions starting with defining strategy and strategic thinking.


Lord Robertson (LR) said it was difficult to discuss using hypotheticals, but would be easier with the use of examples, such as the UK’s nuclear deterrent, which could be seen as part of the UK’s strategy to keep the nation safe and secure. Importantly, it had cross-party agreement which had endured over the span of several electoral cycles. There are examples of cross-party support for such military strategy, and also non-military examples such as Universal Credit.

Harriet Baldwin (HB) said that strategy should be designed at the highest level, with cross-party agreement, and encompassing broad aims appropriate for a modern democracy. We want to improve the nation, build unity among four parts of UK, keep the country safe, and provide economic growth, jobs and security.

Clive Betts (CB) asked why some challenges facing the government lend themselves to a strategic approach better than others? He gave the example of pension reform (and auto-enrolment) that has worked over the long-term with cross-party support, contrasting that with the failure to come up with a response to the challenge of social care provision that is long-term and has cross-party agreement.

Jonathan Shaw (JS), Specialist Adviser to the sub-committee, said that it was more useful to talk about strategizing (an active verb) rather than strategy (a noun), and as such it is better to think of an approach to the challenge that can be fluid and adaptable.

Sophie Howe (SH) commented that long-term thinking is difficult if it requires a cross-government approach. Different departments may have different priorities and interests. She gave the example of improving public health, which is not just a Department of Health issue, but also touches upon housing quality, air quality, lifestyle and diet for example.

Cat Tully (CT), Specialist Adviser to the sub-committee, said the evidence contained broad consensus on identifying the reasons why strategy is difficult, and that the focus needed to be on three questions:

She also said that there was a need to engage the public to increase the chance of buy-in in a similar way to finding buy-in across political parties.

Iain Stewart (IS) said that it is difficult to solve long-term challenges where the benefits are far off in the future. The intervention is not necessarily going to deliver demonstratable benefits in the short-term, and there is always a pressing priority than needs the resources in the short-term.

Sophie Daud (SD) said it would help to address the difficulty of long-term thinking by building dialogues across different generations. This should be both within government and the civil service and in the wider public. Dialogues that help build agreement among people from different age groups can build intergenerational consensus, which is crucial to achieving long-term strategic goals. A good example of this is the discourse and strategy undertaken around the introduction of automatic enrolment into pensions.

Jill Rutter (JR) said strategy does not exist in a vacuum and a lot of government work intersects. Strategy needs to identify big questions to be solved and decide on objectives and actions to take to meet them. The result should involve monitoring and feedback, and the ability to revisit the strategy. She also pushed back on the need for cross-party agreement, as the reality is that politicians have political objectives. 

Alex Thomas (AT) said governments have found it very difficult to decide overarching strategy, which they can plan to deliver in the long term, and then align budgets and resources. These processes were often interrupted by events. He said that the stewardship function raised by [redacted] was a responsibility for ministers. While there was good activity in the civil service, it needed to have capability to do these activities and this had been “undercooked in recent years”.



Patrick Vallance (PV) said his experience in a large private organisation taught him that someone’s strategy is another person’s tactic. He said that strategy required:

  1. Identifying a clear long-term outcome;
  2. Deciding a systems wide approach needed to meet it;
  3. Calculating what might deflect you from meeting the outcome.

His view on how this should be done was:

Alexander Evans (AE) said there were three lessons he wanted the sub-committee to consider:

  1. The temporal dimension is important. Governments do now, not next and strategy should be about looking forward as much as looking back;
  2. Ministers and senior officials have a limited bandwidth and a permanent inability to think very far ahead;
  3. There is a lot of talk about strategy at a high-level but less about the implementation. The sub-committee should focus on delivery, including a method to establish the success of the strategy.

Furthermore, there should be a focus on human capital. Strategy is implemented by many across government and they all have to be prepared and trained sufficiently. He posed two questions:

  1. How well does government do something strategic outside of a crisis?
  2. What structures exist in government that allow leadership time to discuss strategy at ministerial and senior civil servant level?

The Chair asked what was missing in Whitehall that inhibited strategic thinking.


LR agreed that his experience in the Ministry of Defence was that people did not get rewarded for cross-departmental work. He raised the difficulty of developing strategy across government without getting frustrated by HM Treasury.


JS questioned if it was ever possible to change Whitehall when it has the capacity to absorb good recommendations without making change, giving the example of a central education centre of civil servants.

Lord Sedwill (LS) said a central learning campus was required, which would recreate the School of Government. He agreed with [redacted] on the need to create reward for civil servants incorporating strategy, in terms of professional development. He said there had been efforts to build capability in the civil service in national security. He gave the example of China policy where he brought economic thinking and security thinking people in Whitehall to agree on China. He had to persuade talented people to take on a task they saw as a risk as the Senior Responsible Owner. They had to believe that being part of such a cross-cutting team would enhance their career prospects, with this work being a steppingstone to Permanent Secretary level. However, the silo mentality is real so ministers need to be supportive of the endeavour, and the people involved in cross-cutting teams need to be able to see it through and be rewarded for it. This happened on Africa policy, where the responsible Minister and Director General did this well. There had to be the necessary horizontal connective tissue to make cross-departmental working succeed.

SH referred to practice in Wales as set out in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. This is for policy development to take into account the implications for future generations.[1] This has helped include long-term thinking and consideration of intergenerational equity in the decision making for most of the main public bodies in Wales. She further referred to the importance of the role of the Future Generations Commissioner monitoring progress.

SD spoke about the lack of young people in senior leadership teams, and the value they would add in ensuring decisions took account of the needs of current and future generations, not just older people, in pursuit of longer-term strategic outcomes that affect multiple generations. She also proposed the creation of a Minister for future generations.

The Chair asked what recommendations the committee might consider making in its report.

Lord Forsyth (LF) spoke of his experience as a minister and how he felt government was becoming less effective. He said there should be fewer ministers (there were too many now) and that it would help if there was less churn of ministers due to reshuffles. The current situation created challenges both for ministers to hold their department to account and for Parliament to hold ministers to account. He said that Parliament had less time to debate and improve legislation. The House of Commons is not effectively scrutinising legislation as every Bill is timetabled, with large amounts of legislation coming to the House of Lords without being considered by the elected House.

Furthermore, he felt that briefing against the civil service had had a negative impact, and that led to the civil service being less able to challenge ministers. He felt that Cabinet was less effective than in the past and bemoaned the tendency for ministers to listen to Special Advisers rather than civil servants. He queried the accountability of arms-length bodies where government gets blamed for what they do not do, but is not able to influence them sufficiently to ensure they deliver what the government wants.

LS said he agreed with a lot of what LF had said, saying government would benefit from ministers being in post longer, and that when a minister is in post longer they realise they might be around for the outcomes of their policies. He said that developing strategy is helped by providing space for good arguments to be made and challenged. He gave the example of developing the China policy which evolved from people with different starting positions having time and space to talk it through. He said the civil service needs to have the confidence to do that, which meant issues needed to be thrashed out in private without discussions being leaked.

LS also addressed [redacted]’s point about the power of HM Treasury, saying that there had been efforts to create structures that diluted HM Treasury’s influence. This included a proposal for a National Security budget. Furthermore, he said that it was inevitable that the Government’s implementation of important objectives would be likely to involve more than one department.

The Chair asked for views on the role of Cabinet.

LF raised the importance of Cabinet government and of collective Cabinet responsibility, and that these are vital for coherent leadership from the centre of government.


PV said he agreed the Cabinet had not always been good in the recent past. He said the Civil Service often lacked a clear single point of accountability. He said there had been attempts to draw up principles of how to do cross-cutting work, and these were later used by the vaccines taskforce. He concluded that there was a need for teams to have sufficient authority and to be around long enough.

AE stressed the importance of human capital for delivery. The civil service needed:

  1. Porosity so staff could transfer in and out of different levels of government to gain experience;
  2. Training, including being able to learn from experienced ministers and staff;
  3. Incentives to work beyond silos and settled structures.

LS agreed that there needs to be incentives for cross-cutting work in terms of career paths, and similarly people did not see benefits for their career of secondments and learning outside Whitehall. He said civil servants who are willing to see things through from drawing up strategy into programmes into delivery need to see a reward for their career. He argued that it is not the culture in the civil service that deters cross-cutting activity/tasks, it is the barriers that steer people into another route to benefit their career. Also leading a cross-cutting team does not need to be full time to succeed, but a Senior Responsible Owner did need a power structure and resources to draw upon. As such it was not possible to use this structure for all issues – and therefore 4 to 5 priorities need to be chosen. For the civil service, he said they are team players who enjoy working cross-department, but that there are boundaries that prevent this happening more seamlessly. He agreed with [redacted] that machinery of government changes, such as to create a new tailored department, are not a solution to the need to work collaboratively.

The Chair invited final thoughts:

Iain Stewart (IS) asked if officials are incentivised to stay longer in posts in order to be specialists. He also questioned if cross-cutting could be used more if it could be shown to bring efficiency to different departments, so there would be more mutual benefit from engaging.

Robert Courts (RC) doubted there could be serious strategic thinking in government if the rate of ministerial churn continued and drew links to its impact on the efficacy of the Commons as a scrutiny body. He agreed that ministers should have more power in the areas of arm’s length bodies' responsibilities. He supported more red teaming of decisions and better testing of announcements before release, and thought the government needed to understand risk tolerance better.

Clive Betts (CB) returned to the issue of why some things do not lend themselves to strategy, giving the example of the government’s Levelling Up strategy, which should have been a whole of government effort but was not. He compared this to German unification, where the German government had a ten-year strategy which took in all of government.


[1] 42329 WBFG Essentials Guide (