By Jess Bowie

10 Apr 2024

The Civic Future co-founder and former head of the Government Skills Campus on education reform, what the military gets right about skills and why she doesn't use the word "woke"



Pamela Dow is a former senior civil servant and co-founder and chief operating officer of Civic Future, a non-party political charity which identifies and trains talented people for careers in public life. Before leaving the civil service in 2022 she was executive director in the Cabinet Office where she founded and led the Government Skills Campus, designed and delivered the first curriculum for civil service knowledge and skills, and established the Leadership College for Government. Her career also includes senior roles in the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Education and stints in the private sector.


The Civil Service Club is in Great Scotland Yard, between Whitehall and Northumberland Avenue. It provides a restaurant for members and their guests in comfortable, friendly surroundings.

We discussed

Why she left the civil service  

Pamela Dow, standing outside, wearing a white shirt with a blue design on it. Her long, curly brown hair blows out behind herMy co-founder Munira [Mirza, former director of the No.10 Policy Unit under Boris Johnson] and I knew of each other for quite a long time because we had been in the same world, but we had never worked directly together. We had a conversation in summer 2022 and realised that we both shared the same concerns about institutions which weren’t attracting the most talented people for public service, or training them to be effective. Munira’s background is more on the political side of policy and government, and mine on the civil service or business side, so we realised we had hugely complementary skills, knowledge and networks.

We were also both influenced by the military strategist John Boyd’s phrase: “People, ideas, technology – in that order.” We had noticed that in politics and policy there was a lot of emphasis on ideas and technology, but far less emphasis on people.

The United Kingdom used to have more institutions that were either directly or indirectly about talent pipelines. The civil service, for example, had Sunningdale, where you would go to learn your vocational skills. But more important than the actual content of the training would be the mentors you would meet and the relationships. The Conservative Party once had Swinton College, its training base in North Yorkshire, where you’d have debates about Edmund Burke, and how to campaign, how to govern, how to build strong networks. The Labour Party had something similar in the trade union movement or Ruskin College.

Of course, I can understand why a lot of these places were done away with: they’re expensive to heat, it’s hard to show the direct impact that would meet an accountant’s approval. But things like that make institutions strong and resilient, because they make the people competent and confident.

In the summer of 2022 government – political and permanent – was rocky. I had been in the Cabinet Office since 2019, and Munira and I had been through big system stresses – Brexit, Covid. We had separately reached the conclusion that it was now an existential threat to our democracy that we won’t have many young people looking at roles in public life with a sense of aspiration and inspiration. Munira had spent time looking at what other countries were doing, and what had worked in the past, and the various models. Civic Future – the fellowship, and wider programme – was her brainchild. I’ve never started something from scratch before. I’ve been in small organisations and big organisations, but to have created something from nothing, to be there at the start, has been exhilarating.

If any idea is a new idea in the civil service

Quite often in government you find that someone else has tried to tackle the same problem, whether years, decades or centuries before. The Government Skills Campus and civil service curriculum, which came out of Michael Gove’s 2021 speech “The Privilege of Public Service”, gave a new form to a very old challenge.

No-one had ever tried to write a curriculum for vocational skills in the civil service before and I understand why. The range of knowledge and skills needed for 450,000 different people – from people who wear uniforms and police the borders to people who manage a minister’s diary – is mammoth.

But just because it’s hard it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a go, and do it with specificity and clarity.  Luckily, we were coming out of a period where learning and development had been dominated by various HR fads, where there had been more focus on abstract nouns and subjective qualities than on precise and necessary expertise to do a job. Excellent administration requires excellence in management – of people, of resources – but I inherited a veritable alphabet soup of unconnected “leadership” programmes, and absolutely nothing for management.  

The new campus and curriculum, the Leadership College, started to reverse that trend. A single authorial mind focusing on what things we need all these people to know in different departments, functions and at different career stages. Helping people build multidisciplinary teams to take through a policy to delivery. One of the reasons we relied so much on military planners from 2016 onwards was because they had that vocational skill. They trained for it, they didn’t just think that it happened by osmosis.

In the club

The Civil Service Club, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, was established using funds originally raised to celebrate the wedding of then-Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. It opened in 1953 to provide “social facilities in reach of all”, with the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth as its patron.

The club continues to thrive, with more than 13,500 members for whom it provides a varied programme of activities including comedy and quiz nights. Members can also use facilities in the form of the Queen Elizabeth Dining Room, a convivial bar also serving food, meeting and conference rooms, and 26 ensuite bedrooms.

Membership is available from £50 a year and is open to all serving, former and retired members of the UK civil service, government agencies and NDPBs.

Find out more at:

What the military gets right about skills

In that period I looked internationally, at the Civil Service College in Singapore, at Western Australia, at France and Germany, and I spent time at Sandhurst, and Hereford – places where serious training is the most important thing, not an afterthought. Sandhurst is globally lauded and is where the army forms its leadership cadre. They do it very specifically, with a clear curriculum and the transmission of a culture through tradition and practice.

You could argue that the civil service – prior to 2020 – had it completely the wrong way round. Trying to transmit the values and culture through pseudo-pedagogy: a Friday webinar on “empathetic leadership”, or some such. But no standards or criteria for actual knowledge or skills to do a job.

Wokeness and the importance of evidence-based L&D

I try not to use “the W-word” as it’s become such bad faith shorthand for the culture war. Being “awakened” to life in different shoes to your own is one of the joys of being a human being and always was. Diversity in your friendship group, in your work teams, makes you a bigger person. This is the message of every single story we’ve told ourselves as a species since the dawn of time! It’s so ignorant – and arrogant – to imply we only started thinking about these topics in the last decade, or that we can define the “diversity” of our endlessly fascinating human selves with crude, single, identity markers. Some of the solutions – for example to the challenge of lack of diversity in senior positions – are completely untested. And often based on shoddy thinking, for example that every disparity is a result of discrimination. Sometimes when interventions have been tested they are proven to be at best net neutral, if not outright counterproductive – things like unconscious bias or microaggression training.

“Being ‘awakened’ to life in different shoes to your own is one of the joys of being a human being and always was”

It’s not just the civil service making mistakes of performativity and superficiality on this topic. I’ve spoken to so many people from the private sector who think something weird has happened in HR and DEI in the last few years. It’s not the first “profession” to go through this reckoning either. I started at the education department in a period of recognition that some classroom practice was more based on fads and whims. Teacher training was not always an evidence and data-rich place. Health went through it about 20 years before, too. So I’m optimistic that we’re at the end of junk science in DEI.

Back in 2020, when I was looking at what was on the training framework, I wrote a note to the then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and [civil service chief operating officer] Alex Chisholm, saying: We’re going to have to do something about this. We’ve got all this expensive, time-consuming stuff going on, and we have no idea about quality and impact. Commercial providers are selling to HR managers by saying: “There is a diversity problem and my webinar on checking your privilege is what your organisation needs.”

Gove gave exactly the right direction to the quiet and methodical removal of 400-plus courses without any evidence between 2020 and 2022. Kemi Badenoch, as minister for equalities and business secretary, has built on this with the Inclusive Britain recommendations, and the panel I’ve been chairing for her.

What she is most proud of

The reforms to education. In 2010, Michael Gove [who was then education secretary] and his team were fighting the prevailing Ken Robinson Ted-Talk idea that kids didn’t need to be taught things like phonics. They’re old-fashioned and stifle creativity. “Children are naturally curious, so if we let them play with building blocks in the garden and so on they’ll eventually learn to read and write!”

It’s a charming idea, but it’s just not true – especially for poor kids. If your mum and dad are reading Shakespeare’s tales to you, and you’ve got a piano in the sitting room, you’ll probably be alright. It doesn’t matter if you don’t do phonics and your teacher doesn’t enforce discipline in the classroom – you’ll muddle through. But for a poor kid, a structured day, with the most creative teachers who really understand how you learn, in a way that is backed by scientific evidence… that is your only chance.

It was a time when teachers, education leaders, and ministers realised we needed a core knowledge curriculum and high standards of discipline in the classroom. There’s this sticky, false distinction between creativity and hard knowledge, which is wrong, wrong, wrong. If you teach music, art or drama properly, they’re rigorous, serious subjects. And learning maths should be engaging and creative. These ideas are now the norm in education, but at the time that wasn’t the case.

“I’m so proud to have been involved with the reforms to education. Being part of the team that did something sustainable and measurable is amazing, and quite rare in Whitehall”

All of us who were involved in that team – advisers, ministers and officials – felt that we were working hard and doing a good job to make a change, and it was so unifying to work on something like that. Being part of a team to do something sustainable and measurable is amazing. It’s quite rare in Whitehall to be able to look at something like England’s rising place in the international assessment tables and think, “Oh, I was part of that.”

The importance of good management

The other thing I’m proud of from that time is that it really taught me to be a manager. Before that job I’d subscribed to the view that I was better just being in charge of myself, that personal performance was everything, and that that was where career fulfilment lay. When I became a PPS I went from managing two people to managing 70. It was a real shift in my career; I became prouder of the achievements of someone I’d recruited or encouraged or mentored. It’s a very particular sort of pride. You can be proud of something that you’ve done, but it’s not as big an achievement as being proud of something that you’ve helped other people to do. During that period I really understood the importance of good management and that was probably when being in the business of talent development started to appeal.

Most Thick of It moment

Just after the coalition was formed in 2010, when the new ministers in DfE were finally in place, they had their mugshots taken. A lovely female Lib Dem minister casually regretted out loud that she hadn’t worn earrings on the day of her photo. Later, when she was shown the proofs of the pictures, she saw that she’d been “given” earrings, the handiwork of a very well-meaning comms official who had – in the 10 days while we were all waiting for the details of the coalition to be hammered out – done a Photoshop course. She’d had a go at some different earlobes complete with Pat Butcher-esque jewels. Now, that image should never have got to the minister.  Something broke down slightly in the frenzy of the new government and she was given the photo choices, at which she very politely asked if she could “possibly just have her own ears” in her official ministerial picture... 

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