Public Administration CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by Sir John Elvidge (CSR 13)

I am grateful to the Committee for the invitation to submit evidence.

I have a broad perspective on the issues being examined by the Committee from my period as part of the collective leadership of the Home Civil Service between 2003 and 2010 and my subsequent involvement both in work by the Institute for Government on the issues as they are perceived in Whitehall and in work in several other countries, partly under the auspices of OECD. One of my conclusions from my experience is that the current discussion suffers from an overconcentration on experience in Whitehall over the past two years and insufficient attention to the perspective which can be gained by examining experience elsewhere, including in the devolved administrations within the UK.

Against that background, I shall seek to assist the Committee by focusing on the evidence which can be drawn from post-devolution experience in Scotland, based on my involvement as Permanent Secretary for seven years and four years as Head of two of the former constituent Departments of the then Scottish Executive.

The first thing to say about relationships between Ministers and the Civil service in Scotland is that the evidence suggests that they have worked. This is true whether one chooses a political measure of what works, delivery measure or a structural/administrative measure.

Taking measures of political outcomes first, two coalition governments and one single party minority government (with only 36% of the Parliamentary seats) were all sustained for their full terms. The coalition government was re-elected once; and the single party minority government achieved an overall majority at the subsequent election, in the context of an electoral system widely believed to render such an outcome unachievable in practical terms.

Turning to delivery measures, both the coalition governments had formal coalition agreements and, in both cases, an audit of the extent to which the specific content of those agreements was delivered demonstrates that this was overwhelmingly the case in both instances. It is also the case that the numerous more detailed performance targets covering the main services were delivered. Since 2007, the two governments formed by the Scottish National Party have used primarily an outcomes based approach to delivery, which deliberately incorporates more ‘stretch’. I shall come back to discussion of this because it sits at the heart of the way in which the relationships between Ministers and the Civil Service operate but delivery performance is available for scrutiny through the Scotland Performs website.

Finally, in terms of structural/administrative measures, the Civil Service supporting the Scottish Executive/Scottish Government has delivered two massive adjustments: the initial adjustment to a new framework of government and Parliament at the point of devolution in 1999 and the adjustment to the introduction of the ‘Scottish model of government’, which involved the abolition of a departmental structure as one of the key components, in 2007.

I have discussed the UK Government’s civil service reform proposals with some former colleagues working for the Scottish Government. Their reaction is that the proposals appear to be attempts to answer a series of questions which are not being asked in Scotland. The sense is that, insofar as those questions were ever perceived as relevant in the post-devolution environment, they appear to have bee answered to the satisfaction of Scottish Ministers.

I would like to be able to say that the record of success in Scotland can be attributed to the existence of a super breed of civil servants, who have abilities which their colleagues in Whitehall lack. Clearly, that is not so. They are recruited and developed in broadly similar ways to their Whitehall colleagues, although both those aspects are managed by the top civil service management within the Scottish Government and the ways in which they are done have some differences which I believe are beneficial. Their skills and experience are broadly comparable, including the introduction over the past couple of decades of an increasing proportion of skills and experience gained outside the Civil Service. The only sustainable conclusion which I think one can reach is that the quality of the partnership which has been established, from the point of devolution onwards, between the Civil Service and successive sets of Ministers, of varying political parties, has been better than has generally been the case in Whitehall; and that it is this which is the determining factor in the successes achieved. This quality of partnership is the product of a combination of supporting elements, combined with consistency of leadership commitment to establishing and strengthening it.

The essential starting point for a positive relationship between Ministers and civil servants is clarity about what Ministers are seeking to achieve. Since 2007, this has been expressed through the Scottish Government’s framework of a single statement of Purpose, elaborated through seven high level Purpose Targets, and the16 National Outcomes. Prior to 2007, similar clarity was provided, particularly between 2003–07, by the Partnership Agreements which formed the basis of the two coalition governments. It seems a common sense proposition that if one wants a Civil Service which exhibits speed and vigour in the pursuit of government objectives one needs to provide maximum clarity about the nature of those objectives. Constant readiness to apply the brakes or turn the steering wheel tends to inhibit vigorous use of the accelerator.

At UK level, my perception is that there is not the same degree of clarity as exists and has existed in Scotland. The potential clarity provided by the current UK Government’s coalition agreement suffers from the frequency with which members of the Government distance themselves from elements of its content. Such indiscipline was not a feature of the coalition governments in Scotland, and Jack McConnell (now Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale) and Jim Wallace (now Lord Wallace of Tankerness) learned from early experience of coalition government to assert increasingly strong discipline within the two coalitions in which they served as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. As a consequence, civil servants had clarity about the existence of collective Ministerial authority for the content of the Partnership agreements right from the initial stages of policy development and implementation planning.

In the absence of such clarity, civil servants are subject to the ambiguity which exists between the instructions of an individual Minister, or a departmental team of Ministers, and uncertainty about eventual collective endorsement of those instructions. This is not a new issue, nor one which is the product of coalition government rather than single party government. Single party governments using the traditional freedom to pick and choose from their pre-election manifesto, and to modify manifesto proposals in government, are prone to similar ambiguity. I recall from my experience of working at the heart of Whitehall in 1998 and 1999 the way in which policy instructions issued by those close to the Prime Minister to officials in Departments could change from one day to the next.

The key difference between the two approaches which have been applied in Scotland over the post –devolution period is in the transition from expressing government objectives in terms of specific policy actions to expressing them in terms of outcomes. The outcomes based approach has two advantages in relation to maximizing the effectiveness of civil servants, in addition to the basic function of giving clarity of direction. It leaves space for constructive dialogue between Ministers and civil servants (and special advisers) about how progress can most effectively be made towards the outcomes, building a sense of shared endeavour and providing scope for civil servants to deploy their professionalism and knowledge in a way which builds trust. It also lends itself to use as a common framework of purpose with those outside government whose cooperation is necessary or helpful in the delivery of outcomes—local authorities, public bodies, voluntary sector organisations. In Scotland, the same outcomes framework as is used for central government is the foundation of Ministerial guidance to all public bodies and was accepted by local government collectively, as part of the Concordat signed between the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, in 2008. The existence of a common framework assists civil servants to support Ministers by achieving the partnerships which are often essential to effective delivery, while also giving the opportunity to build trust and respect in the working relationships involved.

Experience in Scotland shows that the other approach, specifying policy measures, can work in terms of the ability to focus civil servants’ delivery efforts. The risk is, as Nicholas Negroponte has said pithily, that “doing the wrong thing well gets you to the wrong place faster”. It also casts the dialogue between Ministers and civil servants into what can feel like a negative process, in which, in order to advance a proposition which they believe would deliver Minister’s objectives more effectively, civil servants have no alternative but to present a critique of the prior proposition which Ministers have started with. This need not be a problem where trust has already been developed but it is not conducive to establishing trust in a new relationship.

Another development in Scotland which seems to me to be relevant is the efforts made by successive administrations to develop a team to team relationship between Cabinets and the most senior group of civil servants. It was a feature of the coalition governments, pursued through formal joint meetings of Cabinet Ministers and me (or my predecessor) and Heads of the Departments comprising the then Scottish Executive, but there was a step change in 2007 when , at the start of the minority government, two separately planned but mutually reinforcing changes were made. The new First Minister reduced substantially the number of Cabinet Ministers (Cabinet Secretaries, as they were re-titled) and the new Cabinet made clear their intention to emphasise collective decision making over portfolio by portfolio autonomy. I (with the agreement of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth) abolished the Departmental structure within the Scottish Government and redefined the roles of the former Heads of Department as part of a more corporate approach to supporting Cabinet. The small number of the most senior civil servants (Directors General in grade terms but with responsibilities essentially the same in functional terms as Permanent Secretaries in Whitehall) became a sort of hinge between the Ministerial level of government and that part of the Civil Service responsible for policy and delivery within specific broad subject areas (eg energy policy, school education, local government). They needed to earn and retain the respect and trust of both sides of that relationship through the value they were able to add because it would have been easy in the new structure to bypass them. This is the antithesis of approaches which seek to improve the performance of civil servants by giving various senior figures more formal authority. Issuing instructions secures compliance; success requires more than compliance, it requires the discretionary commitment by civil servants which is so readily given in my experience.

The other issue on which I wish to draw from experience in Scotland is accountability. The nature of the accountability faced by Ministers is clearly much sharper than that faced by senior civil servants and that is, to a large degree, an inherent difference between political office and employment. The gap can be closed, however. The central place which the Committee system occupies in the working arrangements of the Scottish Parliament has rendered it fairly routine for civil servants at a variety of levels to appear without Ministers before the Committees. It is also the case that in Scotland financial accountability in respect of all government expenditure, in the sense of the personal accountability of an Accountable Officer (the equivalent in Scotland of an Accounting Officer) to the Parliament, comes together in one post. As a result, there can be no ambiguity of accountability, and towards the end of my period in that role the Parliament’s Public Audit Committee took to examining me rather than the subordinate Accountable Officers to whom I had delegated responsibility for particular elements of the overall budget. Internally, Ministers understood that I had ultimate control over all decisions about the appointment, promotion and disposition of senior staff, partly by virtue of my ultimate accountability for all aspects of performance through my Principal Accountable Officer role. As a consequence, both they and I believed that I should be held accountable for the capacity of individual senior civil servants to perform what was expected of them and, therefore, for remedying the position when Ministers lost confidence in individual civil servants. The main underlying principle of all this, unifying accountability, is fundamental. Both it and the accompanying principle of translating civil service accountability to a reasonable degree into the public realm, seem to me to be at odds with some threads within the thinking about Civil Service Reform within the UK Government.

I am aware that the usual response to evidence about experience in Scotland is to question whether it is scalable My view is that the essential elements are, even if some of the detail of the arrangements requires to be modified, and that the constructive approach is to ask how one might modify them to deal with any genuine issues of scale.. A good starting point would be to avoid changes in Whitehall which head in the opposite direction to the arrangements which have proved successful in Scotland.

I conclude with a broad description of what I believe any set of arrangements for the Civil Service should seek to deliver and which I believe arrangements in Scotland have delivered. I believe that a system of government which holds the respect and trust of the citizens it serves requires as a vital component a Civil Service which ‘makes things go right’ (in contrast to just ‘stops things going wrong’) by: understanding strategic context, vigorously pursuing beneficial outcomes, using good processes; and managing risk intelligently and proportionately. I also believe that it is unrealistic to expect citizens to sustain their respect and trust in government if it is evident that respect and trust are lacking within government, between Ministers and civil servants.

December 2012

Prepared 5th September 2013