The time of year is approaching when a legion of newly trained Staff Officers await their appointments to a new type of war. As they approach the drop zone they are ready to close with and engage the enemy, whose weapons of choice include cutting memos, razor sharp PowerPoint slides and a fanatical command of the English language that can see a policy paper disarm a long held military tradition and overrun positions held for years by the armed forces without loss to their own.
Leaping out of the protective embrace of Shrivenham, they prepare to fearlessly jump into what for much of their career to date has been unfamiliar, and at times, hostile territory – the space that most used to mark on maps as ‘here be dragons’ and which other people refer to as ‘Whitehall’.
Some land in a disorganised and isolated fashion and after a valiant effort, find themselves overwhelmed, out manoeuvred and finally captured by the enemy. Others quickly regroup, organise a counterattack and successfully assault the enemy, storming their positions and smashing through to the nirvana of the promised land of policy success. They have become a true Staff Officer…
The transition from being a front-line operator to a policy and staff work ninja is something that occurs at different points in an individuals career. But, for any officer serious about reaching the higher echelons of the Service, time spent in Whitehall appointments is seldom wasted.
The change from working in a unit or front-line organisation where the staff are overwhelmingly military and the focus is primarily on internal delivery to meet the needs of the Service, to working in an outwards facing organisation, engaging with multiple different departments and civil servants can be challenging. It means at a mid career perspective taking much of what you know and hold dear, and taking time away from it to work in an entirely new way that is perhaps alien to you, challenges you and isn’t always something you are entirely comfortable with.
The purpose of this series of short articles is to set out the perspective of someone who was worked with, for and led, military officers in Whitehall to show how the new appointee could succeed, and some common pitfalls and myths. It also considers what success looks like and offers advice on how to handle that first appointment into the very strange world of ‘the Centre’.
Most military personnel will have encountered civil servants in units, but these are often relatively junior staff, doing the vital roles of providing administrative support or helping manage and co-ordinate a units activity and outputs. These roles are crucial to defence, but rarely involve direct policy making.
By contrast Whitehall is an entirely different environment, and one that is unlike anything most military personnel will have seen before. Whitehall is both a phrase and a physical place. The phrase ‘Whitehall Departments’ covers all the main departments of state, of which several are located on the street itself. It is a land of different language and terminology – in the MOD ‘the Centre’ usually means Head Office. In Whitehall the Centre means Number 10, and the MOD is a single department among many vying for attention, funding and success.
Each department of state fulfils a different role in order to formulate policies and deliver on the elected government of the days manifesto commitments. The policy is usually driven centrally from Whitehall, and then implemented via the delivery arm of departments.
Traditionally national security was the preserve of a small clutch of departments including MOD, FCO and the Home Office. Today though, it is hard to think of a single department that does not play some role in the development or delivery of national security policy in some way.
What this means is that as a newly arrived military officer in Whitehall, you are not one of a chosen few engaged in these issues. Rather you are joining a large, and growing, community of people with an interest in developing and delivering joined up and effective national security policy.
The first lesson you should take is simple – treat Whitehall as an environmental domain in the same way as you regard the Land, Air and Maritime domains. It is a complex place to operate, requires a lot of groundwork and preparation to achieve operational success and is unforgiving against those who turn up without the right mindset to succeed.
In practical terms this means do not underestimate the ability and skills of those around you, or assume that because they are young civil servants, what could they possibly know or teach you about national security.
Many Whitehall civil servants are long term residents, drawn to the centre of government for the most challenging policy roles going, many of them stay for years. When you arrive on Whitehall as a newly promoted SO2 or SO1, with years of experience of regimental and unit posts behind you, you will find yourself working with peers who will have spent the last 10-15 years working in the Whitehall environment.
That is 10-15 years of policy development, crisis management, briefing Ministers and building cross government consensus to deliver on complex issues that could cost tens of millions to resolve. In other words, the talent pool you will encounter is significant, and you will be working with people who have significantly more experience in this domain than you’re likely to have on arrival.
Please don’t make the mistake some officers have done of assuming that somehow 10-15 years of solid delivery of their Regimental duties makes them an expert at solving grand strategic problems, and that these civil servants they are working with know nothing, and there is nothing that punchy hand of command related moves won’t solve. This isn’t meant to sound flippant, but there is still a minority of officers who assume that they can learn little from the Civil Service. These officers usually fail badly as a result.
The second lesson is clear – ‘engage with your peers and learn from them’. While you were a junior officer out on exercise on Salisbury Plain or preparing to deploy in a tactical role on HERRICK, your peer group of civil servants will have probably been busy at the Strategic level helping sort out a funding package to solve direction from the Prime Minister to fix something, or sitting in COBR supporting the UK response to a major international crisis. They’ve briefed Ministers, done submissions and have all the skills needed to thrive and survive in the Whitehall environment. They have a lot of background, experience and networks that they can employ to help or hinder you and your cause.
There is also a lot of genuine operational experience out there too – many Civil Servants volunteered to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. There are plenty deployed for long (e.g. multi-year) tours to this day across the world working for FCO and DfID. If you tap into it then there is a rich seam of learning and experience you can draw on, not only on how to operate in Whitehall, but also more widely too.
Embrace this knowledge and experience and tap into it to understand how other departments think, and how you can shape this thinking into the advice you offer. This brings us to the third lesson – ‘success occurs when you work across departmental boundaries’. To succeed in Whitehall means building consensus across departments and manoeuvring them into a position where everyone feels like a winner.
It is rare in the big policy debates to find issues solely constrained to just one department. The shift to a fusion based approach means many more departments will actively engage on the debate in the national security space.
If you’re doing a job right, you will spend much of your time walking around different departments, drinking varying quality coffee and slowly building an informal but utterly vital network to help you succeed. Approach this work with an open mind and a willingness to spot the bigger picture. What may appear to be a straightforward national security policy issue at first glance could quickly draw in different departments with very different views.
Don’t assume that everything operates in silos. Issues can quickly have ramifications across a whole range of areas, often very unexpectedly. Invest as much time getting to your your opposite numbers in departments like BEIS, DCMS and Trade as you do the FCO and Home Office.
The result is that when you are tasked late one Friday to draft a Ministerial submission on a complex issue, you know what the other Departmental views are, you know what they are recommending to their Ministers and you are able to offer timely advice that gives your Minister what they need to succeed. Victory is delivered through allies and coalition building, not by hiding behind a wall…
Being able to draft a submission though is just a tiny part of the battle. Being able to build a strong team, and work in an integrated manner alongside your civilian peer group is equally important too. In the next part of this series, we’ll consider the behaviours and approaches that can make a significant difference in a world where no one cares if you wear your shirts with sleeves rolled up or down, and while there is no such thing as ‘rank’, there are plenty of Private Secretaries with the potential to make your life challenging…