Meet the behind-the-scenes analysis team that helped government shape the Scottish referendum debate

Written by Naomi Larsson on 26 June 2018

With nominations open for the Civil Service Awards 2018, we speak to the 2015 Cabinet Secretary winner about the uniqueness of having two sets of civil servants working on the project on different sides of the debate

Credit: PA

In 2013 Mario Pisani became involved in one of the most unique projects of his career. Pisani, who is now deputy director at HM Treasury, was deployed to be part of the Treasury’s Scotland Analysis Programme, which aimed to support the government during the referendum for Scottish independence.

The circumstances were exceptional, he says. “There was a political campaign running in parallel to the work of the civil service – we were all very keen to make sure we abided by the rules agreed between the UK and the Scottish governments.”

They were also operating under a coalition government and a referendum campaign that lasted far longer than a general election campaign. “People in Scotland and the UK were talking about the issue for so long. It was different to a general election where the campaign is very well concentrated for the period just before,” he says.

The core team of 30 people from the Treasury were working within the bounds set by the Cabinet Office and cabinet secretary, and also the Scottish Government. They provided support and analysis for ministers to engage in debate around Scotland issues. Their key projects included writing a paper on the future currency arrangements, on the fiscal implications of Scottish independence, and the “famous leaflet that got produced and delivered to every household in Scotland”, Pisani says.

It was a significant project for Pisani and his colleagues, “partly because there was such a clear moment at which the public would be able to ascertain whether a government strategy had worked or not – the referendum”, he says. “Even though we're civil servants and were supporting the government in meeting its objective, it appeared [to be] a lot more pressure… many other things we work with, the successes or failures are much less well defined.”

At the Civil Service Awards 2015, the Scotland Analysis Programme team won the Cabinet Secretary award, and were commended for their “outstanding achievement in making a difference on an issue of national significance”. Pisani says it was one of his civil service career highlights. “Quite a few departments pitched into the referendum effort, and in the end it was a bit of a surprise that the award was specifically for HM Treasury and for the analysis programme in particular,” he says.

“With hindsight and the government position having been the one the people chose, it feels good to look back on it. Even though it was a lot of hard work and the hours were long, it definitely feels like it was all worth it.”

The independence referendum was a controversial, high-profile policy issue, but Pisani says: “In the Treasury, depending on what role you're in, you always end up doing something like this somewhere or another. We've got fingers in every pie, we're involved in almost every issue in public debate.”

But what was particularly different about this project was having two sets of civil servants – the UK and Scottish governments both trying to operate in accordance with the guidelines from the Cabinet Office.

“Even though it created pressure it also created a lot of focus. Everyone worked well together and we achieved a huge amount in terms of engaging with people in Scotland,” he says, adding that it’s “nice to know that your work had a tangible impact on people”.

He advises civil servants in a similar position to remember “that we all share a common objective”, adding: “It’s quite easy to get distracted by politics, relationships between departments, or other secondary issues. [But you can] keep bringing it back to the fact that we're all working for the same government, with a very clean objective for the referendum and for the programme, and understand that we can all bring different things to the table.”

Pisani uses the example of the leaflet, where the Treasury team members were doing the economic analysis and turning it into a more accessible format, while Foreign Office and Cabinet Office colleagues were working to explain the implications of their policy areas. “Sometimes we can learn from each other on how to do these things.”

Nominations are now open for the 2018 Civil Service Awards.

The Civil Service Awards Community is a new section on Civil Service World that aims to celebrate past winners, inspire people to nominate in 2018, and help us all to learn from good practice. If you’ve ever won or been shortlisted for an award, register your interest to hear about future events and projects for awards alumni