Insights from The Whitehall & Industry Group Annual Interview 2024 

At The Whitehall & Industry Group Annual Interview 2024, senior leaders from across the private, public, university and not-for-profit sectors discussed the key factors shaping the UK’s economic landscape today including geopolitical uncertainty, the need for new skills, energy transition, and supply chain disruption. These are all complex issues that will require collaboration across the sectors, diversity of thought and brave leadership to meet.  

BBC World Services’ Nuala McGovern chaired a cross-sector panel featuring senior leaders representing each sector: Sir Alex Chisholm KCB, Chief Operating Officer for the Civil Service and Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet Office, James Bowler CB, Permanent Secretary to HM Treasury, Joanne Roney CBE, Chief Executive of Manchester City Council, and Maria Laine, President of Boeing’s UK, Ireland, and Nordic regions.  

Key Insights 

  • Complex issues offer opportunities for the UK to establish global leadership, but leaders will need to work collaboratively across the sectors and encourage diversity of thought to meet this challenge. 
  • Although difficult in the face of permacrisis, leaders must make room for long-term thinking. 
  • Encouraging diversity of thought enables better decision-making. 
  • Building skillsets and creating a sustainable skill pipeline is vital to support growth.   

The landscape 

The event began with speakers identifying the most pressing challenges faced today by the UK. They pointed to the following: 

  • Uncertainty from geopolitical events, including conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, supply chain disruption, and elections across the globe 
  • Emerging technologies industries such as AI and the energy transition with the excitement and potential difficulties they bring 
  • Economic pressures from inflation, the cost-of-living crisis, and energy prices 
  • Skill shortages in using new technologies and from the Great Retirement 
  • The UK establishing its place in the world after leaving the EU and within the context of the US’s Inflation Reduction Act  

These complex issues offer opportunities for the UK to establish global leadership, but leaders will need to work collaboratively across the sectors and encourage diversity of thought to meet this challenge. This includes building skillsets, boosting productivity and creating stability to seize this opportunity to create a more prosperous UK.  

Tactics to address complex issues: 

The speakers identified the following tactics to address complex issues: 

Collaborate to achieve goals 

Speakers emphasised that no one can meet challenges or succeed alone. Collaboration is an imperative. They discussed the following case studies of successful collaboration in action: 

Manchester’s triple helix approach 

Manchester’s triple helix approach among the local council, university and business has contributed to the city’s status as the top large UK city for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). As part of this approach, Manchester trains young, skilled people to fill the gaps needed by the businesses invested and located in the city. 

For an approach like this to succeed, plans be customised to account for a location's unique circumstances including its existing links to industries and skills.  

Cross-pollination in research and development  

Collaborative research and development (R&D) processes can lead to innovation through exposure to outside ideas. This cross-pollination often occurs within a university setting with capital and investment support from industry, government, and local government. The speakers cited The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre as an example that enables innovation and incentivises private sector investment within an area.  

Enable diversity of thought 

Diversity of thought and experience is vital to meet the complex challenges faced today.  

Build a sustainable talent pipeline 

To increase diverse representation at C and Board levels, organisations must cultivate an inclusive culture, start hiring diverse talent early, and create development plans to enable future planning.  

Include perspectives from across the country 

Create ways to involve voices from across the country to include perspectives that previously would not have influenced discussions. For example, the Civil Service’s campus in Darlington enables a UK-wide view of policy development.   

Encourage the expression of dissenting opinions 

Expressing disagreement takes courage. Speakers highlighted that encouragement of expressions of disagreement enables better decision-making and breaks groupthink. 


Create stability to enable growth 

Complex issues require long-term approaches which require stability and innovation.  

Think long-term despite permacrises 

The current state of permacrisis can make a focus on the long-term difficult. In the last few years, some crises have quieted, such as Covid-19, while others are still growing. Leaders must make room for long-term thinking to succeed.  

Showcase stability and credibility  

The emerging net zero industry offers a huge economic opportunity and scope for the UK to export expertise globally. However, to attract the long-term investments needed to succeed, the UK needs to be seen as stable and credible. The government will need to create policies, set frameworks and create incentives to enable and trigger this growth. Industry will need to respond with innovation and collaboration. Speakers emphasised that net zero will be a marathon not a sprint. 

Build skillsets and boost productivity 

Building skillsets and creating a sustainable skill pipeline are vitally important to support growth. Leaders must meet the challenges of technological advancement and fill the skill gap caused by people retiring early during the pandemic.  

Upskill for emerging technologies 

Most of the workforce will be using AI by the 2030s, so it is imperative to upskill UK workers, not just plan to import talent.  

Alternatively, AI can also help with certain upskilling needs. For example, the technology can potentially deliver training and some mundane tasks. Speakers highlighted AI’s potential to improve productivity and growth. 

However, there are limits to what AI can do. It cannot make emotional or human judgements, which is the technology’s major limitation for use at a local level. Use of the technology will need to sit alongside skills retraining and encouragement of lifelong learning.  

Rebuild skillsets following the Great Retirement 

Alongside the emerging industries, more established roles and industries also face a skill shortage due to the Great Retirement that occurred during the pandemic.   

For example, workers with knowledge about supply chains have retired early resulting in a lingering skill shortage.  This gap is highlighted when unexpected and external events, such as the Houthi rebels in the Red Sea, impact the UK’s supply chain, which is particularly vulnerable to outside influence because of the country’s reliance on exports and trade.  

Solutions include providing training and implementing dual sourcing, so there are alternative resources if one supplier has an issue. The time it takes for supply chains to stabilise will vary by industry. 


Periods of uncertainty provide both risk and reward for governments, businesses and not-for-profits. There are opportunities for the UK to solidify its soft power and enshrine its standing as a global leader following its departure from the EU, and collaboration and the exchange of ideas across the sectors are paramount.  

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