‘2020 has been the most testing time I’ve experienced as a leader’: Scottish Government perm sec Leslie Evans looks back at a ‘volatile’ and ‘complex’ year

2020 was a year unlike any other, with the coronavirus pandemic upending the work of government and changing how we live our daily lives. Senior figures from across the civil service tell us how the unprecedented 12 months affected them, and look ahead to 2021

By Civil Service World

15 Dec 2020


What are you proudest of your department or agency achieving in 2020?

The Scottish Government has led Scotland’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic since it escalated in the early part of the year, requiring the organisation to reprioritise and pivot almost overnight. Our actions and advice – given at unprecedented pace – have supported ministers in leading the country through the virus’s evolving phases and complexities. In the meantime, other business didn’t stop. We had a tough budget to address, decisions to make on resourcing and major delivery programmes underway.

Two constants in all this have been, firstly, the guiding light - and challenge - of our ‘North Star’: Scotland’s National Performance Framework. And secondly the commitment, resolve, creativity and capacity of Scottish Government teams. Not only that but they have delivered day in day out with kindness and humanity. I’ve seen first-hand examples of the trust, camaraderie and care colleagues have shown for each other. So I am most proud of our people and how they have worked together this year.

What was the hardest part of being a leader in 2020?

2020 has been the most testing time I’ve experienced as a leader – and I have been through some events! A particular policy challenge has been ensuring that every decision or intervention relating to the pandemic takes into account the four harms: Covid health harms, non-Covid health harms, societal harms and economic harms. It’s complex work ensuring impacts are balanced to serve society as a whole whilst protecting the most vulnerable. Despite the time pressures of decision making this has meant asking myself  ‘Are we really hearing all the voices in the room?’, thus inviting – and embracing – challenge, even through times like these.  

I’ve often spoken about leading in ‘VUCA’ times – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – and about the concurrent risk of ‘heroic leadership’ during  such times, the idea that one supreme being holds all the answers to all the questions, even when we are not even sure what the questions are. 2020 has felt like VUCA max. We have needed agile, distributed, open and empowered collaborative leadership, and I have seen this taking place across Scotland and throughout sectors and organisations during 2020.

What are the main challenges facing your organisation in the coming year?

The Scottish Government faces the significant, concurrent risks of managing the continued response to Covid-19 and the impact of EU exit, alongside a Scottish winter and its impact on health and transport services. Ensuring our organisation, the wider public sector, businesses and society have the information they need to meet these challenges is crucial. Our organisation must be ready for the outcome of next year’s Scottish Parliament elections too. So VUCA lives on in 2021. Meanwhile work on the outcomes of our National Performance Framework and delivering the Programme for Government with its focus on job creation, building a greener economy and plans to tackle inequalities continues.

People will have to be more creative about celebrating this year. How will you make the festive period on Zoom special?

Using Zoom, Webex, Teams and Skype feels like second nature now. Like most of us, it’s not just how I’ve been conducting my work schedule but also how I've been conducting much of my life, including keeping in touch with family and friends and attending online yoga and pilates classes. My family is scattered across Scotland, England, Texas, California and a Naval destroyer, so I look forward to seeing some of them on screen, with my paper hat on and a glass of something to hand. The only question now is choosing the right backdrop. 


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