Devolution: A Decade On - Justice Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 202-219)


26 FEBRUARY 2008

  Q202 Chairman: Sir John, welcome. We are delighted to have you with us to give us the benefit of your experience. I cannot remember whether you were here at the beginning when I explained the scope of what we are trying to do.

  Sir John Elvidge: I was indeed.

  Chairman: Since you heard that, I can invite Ms Morgan to start.

  Q203  Julie Morgan: Good morning. Could you tell us how the Scottish Civil Service has changed since devolution started in 1999?

  Sir John Elvidge: I will do my best. Perhaps one starting point is to say that in a very literal sense the Civil Service has changed substantially in that around 40% of the people who work for us now did not work for us before devolution, so as a body of people a substantial number of them have not carried over from a pre-devolution existence to a post-devolution existence. Along with that has come an effort to bring a wider variety of skills and backgrounds into the Civil Service. We were the first part of the Civil Service, for example, to recruit generically into the Senior Civil Service from outside the Civil Service. We take people in cohorts rather than taking them to individual posts. That has enabled us to accelerate the diversification of skills and backgrounds. Like other parts of the Civil Service we have become more diverse in other ways, particularly at senior levels.

  Q204  Julie Morgan: Just going back to the previous point, do you have many secondments?

  Sir John Elvidge: We have a large number of secondments. I think I am right in saying that we are currently at the highest level of inward secondments that we have ever had. Inward secondments have proved a great deal easier than outward secondments. That is directly related to a core part of our working principles, which is the importance of working closely with our external partners at all stages of the government process, so not simply consulting around the delivery phase of government policy but working closely with our external partners at the policy formation phase. If that is the approach you seek to achieve then bringing people from outside into the organisation on secondment helps get that wider expertise embedded right at the beginning of the policy-making process.

  Q205  Julie Morgan: Who would be the main partners?

  Sir John Elvidge: Local authorities are a substantial partner. We have a lot of NHS secondees inside the organisation. The Third Sector also provides a reasonable number of secondees. The private sector probably makes up the smallest proportion of our inward secondees.

  Q206  Julie Morgan: This has moved ahead very quickly since devolution, has it?

  Sir John Elvidge: Yes. I would say there has been a step change in our use of secondments since devolution.

  Q207  Julie Morgan: Has that been a deliberate policy?

  Sir John Elvidge: Yes, for the reasons I outlined, because we believe it is important to bring that experience inside the organisation rather than simply engaging with that expertise still embedded in its various organisations. It is not an either/or, of course, but it is an attempt to deepen our understanding of the stakeholder perspective.

  Q208  Julie Morgan: This has happened in England and Wales as well but you think it has happened more rapidly in Scotland, is that what you are saying?

  Sir John Elvidge: I would not like to make a comparative observation about that. It has happened rapidly in Scotland compared to our own past practice. The approach in Wales, of course, is slightly different with bringing substantial parts of the public sector into the structure of government. The sheer numbers of people transferring their expertise into the heart of government in Wales must be greater than the sheer numbers here. I do not have an overview of what happens in Whitehall that would enable me to make that comparison.

  Q209  Julie Morgan: Are there any other ways in which the Civil Service has changed since 1999?

  Sir John Elvidge: We have changed structurally, although I never think that structural change is the most important part of changes. We went through one phase of moulding our structure more closely around the portfolios of individual Cabinet ministers. That phase one would probably be placed in time from 2001 through to 2007. We have recently been through another phase of change where we have made structural changes to emphasise the need for people to work together across the organisation. We have moved away from having a structure of departments that mirrors the way in which Whitehall is organised to moving our more self-contained units of business one level down to our 42 directorates and redefining the roles of those whose role was previously as a head of department so that their individual roles run right across the organisation and they are each responsible for driving one of the strategic themes of the new government.

  Q210  Julie Morgan: That is a change that has been brought in by the SNP Government?

  Sir John Elvidge: It is a change which evolved naturally from our thinking about the organisation and which aligned very well with the SNP's own thinking about the way in which they wanted to conduct their government. We had a very early discussion about whether they would support a radical change in the organisation of that nature and they were happy to do that.

  Q211  Julie Morgan: This was something you had been thinking of within the Civil Service before the new government came in?

  Sir John Elvidge: Yes, indeed. We had an external peer review, like the Capability Reviews in Whitehall, in the autumn of 2006 which had strengthened the case for moving in that direction. The way I normally express this when I am talking to people inside and outside the organisation is that in the previous four years, 2003-07, the coalition government had made 460-odd specific commitments to the people of Scotland and in our audit in January 2007 of performance against those we were able to demonstrate that we had delivered approximately 97% of those 460-odd commitments. That told me that we were hitting diminishing returns from doing the things that fitted neatly into a departmental structure. We had demonstrated that if you set the organisation tasks of that kind the organisation would deliver them. Nevertheless, there was a view, I think both internally and externally, that there were more complex issues facing Scotland that perhaps we were not being as successful at dealing with and I and a number of others thought that we would need a different way of operating as an organisation if, without sacrificing that ability to do things that fit into the boxes, we were to become equally good at doing the complex things. That seemed to me to require a fairly radical upheaval to the way the organisation thought about itself.

  Julie Morgan: I am sure that will be picked up later.

  Q212  Alun Michael: One of the things you have said is key to that is the development of the Strategic Board. How does that change things in terms of reflecting government's strategic objectives? You referred to the organisation, but what is the Board's role in that? Is it likely to be any more effective and accountable than boards in Whitehall departments, which you will gather from the question I am not terribly impressed with?

  Sir John Elvidge: I certainly hope so would be the answer. The Board's role is very explicit, that is to focus on the totality of the organisation, not on the bits of the organisation. My explicit expectation of members of the Strategic Board is that they are there to think about the whole performance of the organisation, not to represent bits of the organisation. That was an important part of the journey that we were travelling on and I can talk for quite a long time about the way in which the top structure of this organisation has evolved from its pre-devolution period through various steps until we reached this stage that suggested that we needed to be smaller, because I think the number of people around the table is a factor.

  Q213  Alun Michael: The number is?

  Sir John Elvidge: The number of members of the Strategic Board at the moment is six executive members, me and five directors-general, and I have two non-executives at the moment although I would normally have three.

  Q214  Alun Michael: So the non-execs are meant to bring some outside expertise into the Board. What is the relationship between the Board, including its non-exec members, and ministers?

  Sir John Elvidge: The role of the Board is to support ministers collectively, to support Cabinet, and to focus on that rather than a one-to-one relationship between members of the Board and individual ministers. That is a very significant transition from our past history and I would not claim that you would find a perfect transition there, but we have a Cabinet who place very considerable emphasis themselves, as I am sure ministers will tell you later, on collective working at Cabinet level, therefore it must be right that the organisation seeks to support that collective working through the responsibilities of the Board.

  Q215  Alun Michael: How do you ensure that improves the ability of ministers to deliver rather than, if I can be cheeky, increasing the power of the Permanent Secretary?

  Sir John Elvidge: Personally, I think the power of permanent secretaries is often overrated. That has to be a proof of the pudding question, does it not. If you look at the budget document that is the product of the Strategic Spending Review, if you look at the Government's economic strategy explaining how its single core purpose will be articulated through the organisation, and if you look at the radical new relationship with local government and the way in which that has been articulated you would see the fruits of the way in which the Board is concentrating on these collective products that support collective government.

  Q216  Alun Michael: You referred a moments ago in response to my colleague about secondment in and out of the Civil Service in Scotland and I got the impression that was largely secondments in and out with other organisations in Scotland, is that the case?

  Sir John Elvidge: Mostly, yes. Let me just think if there are examples that do not fit that pattern. Off the top of my head I cannot think of secondments either with the UK Government or the other two devolved administrations. I think there is a bit of a practical reason for that. It is quite domestically disruptive, obviously, to shift workplace across those distances. Particularly with Wales and Northern Ireland we concentrate on other mechanisms for sharing learning.

  Q217  Alun Michael: That interdepartmental activity, as we have seen across Whitehall departments, can be very, very fruitful in getting people to think differently or more imaginatively, to look at different ways of working.

  Sir John Elvidge: Yes.

  Q218  Alun Michael: Is there a need to promote that in the interests of developing civil servants?

  Sir John Elvidge: Yes. I did not mean to imply that there was not cross-fertilisation. A substantial number of those people who did not work for us before devolution have come to us from the Civil Service in Whitehall.

  Q219  Alun Michael: So traffic is important and continues then?

  Sir John Elvidge: Yes. There is more of a northward flow than there is a southward flow, I think it would be fair to say. For example, a senior member of the Crown Office team has recently moved to Wales to be the most senior official of the Crown Prosecution Service in Wales. We are seeing, and perhaps beginning to see more of, that cross-fertilisation but it is more in the nature of, if not permanent moves, quite long-term moves for people than secondments which typically are of shorter duration.

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