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Under the spotlight: the civil service in the Scottish devolved system

Published: 14 September 2020
Author: Richard Parry

Building on themes in his chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics, Richard Parry discusses the unprecedented scrutiny now being faced by Scottish civil servants. 

Scottish civil servants have seldom been public personalities, but the current Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans became a box office attraction when giving oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament Committee on Scottish Government (SG) Handling of Harassment complaints.

In recent weeks, Evans has had to face up to the SG’s loss of a judicial review brought to the Court of Session by former First Minister, Alex Salmond, over  the procedure used to investigate complaints of harassment against him, with the case costing the public purse over half a million pounds.

Evans and her colleagues have had to set out the relationship between the SG’s harassment policy against ministers past and present, and the position of its officials within the wider British civil service. The SG’s decision on 3 August 2020 to commission an external review by Laura Dunlop QC of the procedure (instituted in 2017 and only ever used against Alex Salmond) shows that the policy is now considered unsatisfactory.  We know from an e-mail released to the Holyrood Committee (17 November 2017, in FN30) that the UK Cabinet Office was ‘very uncomfortable’ about the policy. But why was it consulted, and why were reservations ignored? The answer lies in the balance between continuity and innovation in the Scottish civil service still nominally part of the UK’s Home Civil Service, but for good or ill, free to use their ministers’ authority to move in new directions.

At the start of devolution, the UK legacy was dominant. As the Oxford Handbook chapter explains in more detail, the Scottish devolved bureaucracy derives from models and practices inherited from the pre-1999 system. These include formal rules on civil service management and government accounting, and ways of organising public services that the system has not wished to change. Civil servants must accommodate an exclusive loyalty to Scottish ministers alongside an employment position in the Home Civil Service run by a UK Government department, the Cabinet Office. This includes common trade unions and a non-contributory UK pension scheme.

Grades in the Senior Civil Service also have a particularly strong sense of integration, because their pay determination is based on a common job evaluation methodology. |At the very highest level of SG civil service appointments, the Civil Service Commissioners and the Cabinet Office participate in the process.

Over time, the SG civil service drifted apart, because it had no accountability to UK ministers. Civil servants have to know who they are serving. The political and legal position was clear when the SNP took office as a minority government in 2007, the ‘full service’ loyalty to ministers was not fully grasped and was thereby diminished.

The independence referendum campaign of 2013-14 highlighted these  issues of loyalty to the United Kingdom. Here the key aspect was that the work of officials in UK departments  supported  their own ministers’ strong and detailed rebuttals to the case for independence. The SNP were able to mobilise official advice about their own detailed scenarios of policy in an independent Scotland without being called out by Whitehall for violating civil service norms.

In some areas the SG has been innovative. Gender equality has been emphasised, with a female First Minister choosing a female Permanent Secretary in 2015 (and it was a personal choice among suitable candidates under a power gained in 2014 by all UK ministers). Like the Scottish Cabinet, the top management team is majority female. Typical high-flying career patterns that involved time in London have been replaced by more diverse recruitment. The Fairness at Work policy of 2010, which uniquely in the civil service brought ministerial behaviour into its ambit, expressed a progressive approach to human resources policy that grew in step with a gender-balanced senior echelon.

Organisationally, the SG’s great innovation (in 2007) was a non-departmental structure in which directorates are the building-blocks and official advice is not channelled through hierarchical silos. This has produced a tight ‘core executive’, with political and official communication plans running in parallel and ministers lacking ministries or departments of their own.

But innovation can be risky. In the harassment procedure the SG was (as confirmed by its drafter James Hynd at the Holyrood evidence session on 25 August) striking out on its own. In Whitehall, it would have been caught up in political channels at the Cabinet Office; in the SG, ministers could endorse it direct. After the single interaction with the Cabinet Office, Scotland went its own way.

The monolith of the SG’s St Andrew’s House, with ’State Craft’ carved on the front as one of its functions, now faces, across the train tracks, the new Queen Elizabeth House, the Scottish home of ‘UK Government’. Devolution balances the two levels of government (with most civil servants in Scotland still working for UK departments), but their approaches have diverged. The civil service looked like it may be a reserved function that Scottish politicians would want to grab back, but in practice, even the SNP has lived with the Whitehall link, knowing that they could go their own way unchallenged. In the Salmond case, this home-grown aspect bit back as there was no external check on a policy that was contentious, and the implementation flawed.

'The Civil Service and Government Structures' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics i
n August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press.

Photo by dun_deagh on Flickr 

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