By Jess Bowie

20 Sep 2016

With the future of the United Kingdom once again in the balance after the vote to quit the European Union, Jess Bowie sits down with Scotland's top official to discuss Brexit, independence – and whether the culture at the top of the civil service is holding women back. Photos by David Anderson

“It was great to see you and Hillary. One of my few moments of real enjoyment,” Tony Blair told Bill Clinton soon after becoming prime minister. “Well, you get to be a real person. See you in Denver. Bye-bye,” the US president replied before hanging up.

The transcripts, released earlier this year, of phone calls between Blair and Clinton reveal – along with the two men’s cringeworthy habit of calling each other “mate” and “bud” – that running a country can be a solitary business. 

Leslie Evans, permanent secretary of the Scottish government, might not appreciate a comparison between her situation and that of the Blair/Clinton world. She might also contest the idea there are few moments of real enjoyment in her role (a theme which will recur during her hour with CSW, not least when we discuss the perceived joylessness of senior management, and whether it plays into the woeful lack of women at the top of the civil service). 

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And yet, sitting in her office in St Andrew’s House, an imposing art deco building near the centre of Edinburgh, Evans admits that her job can be rather lonely. 

She comes down to London “as often as she can” to attend the Wednesday Morning Colleagues meeting of permanent secretaries (which involves setting her alarm for 4.55am), and has worked hard to improve mutual understanding between the 5,000 Scottish government civil servants, who serve Scotland’s SNP government, and the rest of the UK civil service – of which she and her officials are also a part. 

But it is in her relationships with the Welsh government perm sec Sir Derek Jones and the head of the Northern Irish civil service, Sir Malcolm McKibbin, that Evans, 57, seems to derive the strongest sense of kinship. “Funnily enough, a few minutes before you walked through the door, Malcolm had just rung up and said, ‘Can we have a chat tomorrow?’” she says.

A little later she adds: “They’re quite lonely jobs. And Northern Ireland [where Evans was born] and Wales and mine are similar in that, though we have different numbers of devolved responsibilities, we’re responsible for a country – a nation, at least – in a way that is different when you’re responsible for a department. There aren’t many places where you can have the opportunity to chew the fat on how that feels.”

When Evans – whose English accent belies her 30 years in Scotland – became perm sec of the Scottish government just over a year ago, her Whitehall counterparts were all “very welcoming”, although, she says, “they all had different levels of understanding of what it is in Scotland that I do...” She went further during a speech at the Institute for Government (IfG) in February, recalling an early meeting where one perm sec said to her: “I can’t tell you how infinitesimally small Scotland is on my agenda.” 

These days, though – perhaps thanks to Evans’s deliberate efforts – civil service relations among the different parts of Britain are, she insists, on a strong footing. And, boy, do they need to be: the new tax and welfare powers coming Holyrood’s way in the wake of the 2016 Scotland Act will require very close collaboration between the UK and Scottish governments if services are to keep running smoothly, and the result of June’s European Union referendum has ensured those official relationships now face one of their biggest tests yet. 

After the news broke that Britain was to leave the EU, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon – whose country voted emphatically to remain – wasted no time in telling her civil servants to start drafting legislation for a second Scottish independence referendum.  

What exactly does that preparatory work entail? 

“She did say that. But of course I would just give a slight bit of context,” Evans says, “in that it is one of a number of options that she has asked us and her Standing Council on Europe to pursue. So it isn’t that she is instructing us to do that at the cost of, or in isolation from, anything else. We’re actually working on a whole range of options as to how Scotland’s interests in Europe can be protected, and of course that’s her overarching interest at the moment.

“However, yes, we have a team that works on constitutional matters. You’ll be aware that we drew up legislation ready for the parliament in 2014. So it’s not that we’re starting from scratch.”

Indeed. Given that a lot of the groundwork has already been laid, does some of the new work involve legal advice on whether Scotland would be able to hold a second referendum without Westminster’s agreement? 

“The legislation per se is a very particular piece of work on legislative content. There is a whole range of other advice around that, as you’d expect, and that will include all the things we looked at at the time of 2014,” Evans says. 

One of Theresa May’s first engagements after becoming prime minister in July was to travel north of the border to meet Sturgeon. May said she wanted the Scottish government to be “fully engaged” in the UK’s Brexit negotiations and spoke of her willingness “to listen to any options” Scotland might bring forward for having a different relationship with the EU than the rest of the UK.

"This isn’t about Scotland being consulted after decisions have been taken, it’s about a commitment that was articulated by the prime minister being made real"

Asked what this will mean in practice, and what machinery of government needs to be in place to ensure Scotland is involved in those negotiations, Evans says it is all part of “an ongoing conversation that’s taking place in different contexts and forums”. 

“There’s been a constant, quite intense conversation taking place in political circles, that I fully anticipate will continue, not just from the point of view of Scotland but among and between devolved administrations and with the UK government. There’s also a lot of work going on at official level in support of those political conversations between my officials, the UK government – particularly people in the Scotland Office – and in the new departments that have been created such as ‘DExEU’, as it’s being called colloquially,” she says, smiling as she opts to pronounce the acronym of the new Department for Exiting the EU to rhyme with “sexy”. 

Much of the work is about making sure Scotland is a “live partner” in all discussions, Evans says. 

“Because this isn’t about Scotland being consulted after decisions have been taken, it’s about a commitment that was articulated by the prime minister being made real – and that’s an official structure, as much as it is a political one, to enable Scotland to be consulted and to have an influence in this process as it unfolds.”

But what of the eventual outcome of that process? With maintaining access to the single market and free movement of people among Sturgeon’s “red lines” for Brexit, Holyrood seems now to be on a collision course with Westminster over the terms of the deal.  

A blog by the IfG’s constitutional expert Akash Paun titled “Can Scotland avoid Brexit?” posited three possible scenarios: 1) Could Scotland block Brexit altogether? The short answer: Scotland probably has no formal veto over Brexit. 2) Could Scotland remain in the EU and the UK while England and Wales and leave? There was no easily applicable model for Scotland to do this, Paun said, even if the UK government found it acceptable. And besides, EU leaders such as François Hollande have declared that Scotland must leave the EU with the rest of the UK. 3) Could Scotland secede from the UK and apply to join the EU as an independent state? 

Writing a few days before Theresa May publicly ruled out another Scottish independence referendum, Paun pointed out that a second Scottish vote would likely require another inter-governmental deal. “If the Scottish parliament sought to legislate for another ‘IndyRef’ regardless, the UK government could seek to block this through the courts. Politically, however, this would be a risky gambit and one that could trigger a real constitutional crisis,” he concluded.

It is clear that Sturgeon is unsure about how to proceed. As a smattering of polls showed support for independence increasing – but not passing the 50% mark – she launched a national consultation at the beginning of September with the aim of gauging post-EU referendum opinions on independence. If the level of grassroots debate anticipated by the first minister takes place, the consultation will provide a three-month platform for pro-independence campaigning.

With the very fabric of the UK potentially under threat, is there ultimately an outcome that both sides can live with?

“Well, there will be an outcome,” Evans says. “We are in unprecedented times. I mean, it is unprecedented in so many ways. The scenarios that have just been set out there are a kind of a wargame approach – if you had to write down all the difficulties, complexities, and constitutional tensions that would be thrown up. As I said to someone the other day, if you were watching ‘The Thick Of It’ you would probably throw out this current set of circumstances as being too bonkers.

“So I’m not going to opine on individual scenarios of that kind, and you wouldn’t expect me to,” she says, referring again to the Standing Council and its work examining “all the constitutional and ‘small p’ political opportunities, models and styles that either exist or don’t exist that need to be examined before any more narrowing down takes place”. 

She adds: “It’s important that we don’t run ahead of ourselves. All of [Paun’s scenarios] sound constitutionally quite logical. But that’s taking politics with a ‘big P’ out of it. And it’s that, the raw politics, that will actually drive the solutions and the outcome here – both the relationship between the UK and the devolved administrations and other territories, and the politics of Europe as well.”

When we meet on a rainy day in August, Evans is looking fresh-faced and tanned. She has just returned from a week in Skye where she and her husband have a small house. “It was beautiful weather at the beginning, less beautiful at the end, but [the house] is a real sanctuary,” she says. 

Her son, who has just turned 25, didn’t accompany his parents – “he goes there with a group of friends”. 

Is he considering a career in the civil service?

“No, I can say categorically not! His area of interest is global security – changing the world. So it’s probably more likely to be NGO and third sector, and out of this country.”

Still, it seems the public service instinct runs in the family. “Well, yes – the ethos of trying to make a difference actually is something that makes him very passionate.” 

Later, Evans reveals that her husband is in the music industry. “He works in rock and roll, touring with bands. But I won’t say anything more about that because we have separate lives. I mean, we live together, but we do have separate lives… I don’t want to embarrass him!” 

CSW won’t intrude, but will quietly take that to mean she is married to a rock star…

“I’ll tell him that, he’ll be delighted!” Evans laughs.

The subject of Evans’s husband came up in another interview once, when she applied for a job on a local council in the late 1980s. What, asked the panel, did her husband think of the fact she was applying for the job? 

It was one of a number of instances of sexism she has experienced while rising through the ranks of public sector leadership. And the topic of women and leadership is close to her heart: “I am not the archetypical perm sec. Firstly, unlike three quarters of UK permanent secretaries, I am female,” Evans said in her IfG speech. She also made a point of saying that, while the majority of perm secs had attended an independent school and an Oxbridge college, she went to a comprehensive and a red brick university.

In 2016, Evans – the first woman to lead the Scottish civil service – is one of just four female permanent secretaries. Why does she think that is? And why have the numbers, in stark contrast to the rhetoric and the multiplying diversity drives, gone down since that sunny interlude (of half a week) in 2011 when there were eight women leading government departments? 

“It’s disappointing,” she says. “There’s no doubt that recent appointments have meant that in UK perm sec terms we’ve gone down, rather than even plateaued. I think there’s a number of reasons why that’s happened. We always say it takes time – and I am impatient for change, but it does take time. I also think people sometimes look at these jobs and think: ‘Do I want to do that job?’ And, seeing it done in a particular way: ‘Does that feel right for me?’ I think women and men think: ‘What kind of work-life balance do I want now?’ 

“I’m of a generation where we were told we could have it all and I always knew we couldn’t – that we have to make compromises."

“I’m of a generation where we were told we could have it all and I always knew we couldn’t – that we have to make compromises. And we all do. But I think the generation coming up behind me and [the one] behind them, particularly, are thinking: ‘Well, what does life mean? What is quality of life? Do I work to live or live to work?’

“And I think that’s quite right. So I think they’re asking questions of institutions and organisations about how we construct and configure jobs. ‘Are they doable? Do they look appealing? Does she look like she’s having fun or not?’”

Evans is not the only one to voice such thoughts. Her remarks tap into sentiments recently expressed by both the right-on former perm sec Dame Helen Ghosh and the disgraced Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Kevin Roberts. 

Ghosh told CSW in July: “I sometimes wonder whether some women looked up to us [female perm secs] and thought ‘blimey, do they look as though they are enjoying it?’” While for his part Roberts, among a series of obnoxious statements about how the gender debate was “over” in advertising, said that women he spoke to in his industry were deliberately prioritising happiness and enjoyment of their work over climbing the management ladder. 

“And the point I was making” – Evans says, when reminded of Ghosh and Roberts’ comments – “is we shouldn’t be asking people to make those choices. It shouldn’t be: do I want to be in a job like that, or do I want to get home and see my kids once in a while?”

Our conversation about the barriers preventing women from taking on senior roles is wide-ranging, taking in female confidence (Evans sees women who “throw themselves into paroxysms of self-doubt” over applying for jobs in “a way that men never do”); a lack of role models (people “have an ingrained and rather old fashioned view of what they see as a director general or a perm sec – from what they have observed”); and even whether ministers, who now have more power over perm sec appointments, should take their share of the blame (“That seems to be implying that men or even women in particular political parties that happen to be in power have a preference for working with one sex or the other. I can’t possibly comment on that, and I think it sounds a bit simplistic”). 

But the question of work-life balance keeps cropping up. “I’m not being naive here,” Evans says at one point. “I had a meeting with the unions yesterday who were saying that people feel really stretched in parts of this organisation, they feel they’ve got a huge amount on their plate. I have conversations of that kind with my own teams, and this isn’t just about women.” 

She adds that the public sector as a whole doesn’t pay people well enough to simply “work them like a madman or madwoman”. “You will have to make compromises [in a high powered job], but we can make the culture of the organisation, and the way that we describe and ascribe that work, meaningful and still achievable. Otherwise, ultimately we will price ourselves out of the market.” 

She recalls a recent conversation with a woman who was unsure whether to apply for a senior role. “She said to me: ‘I still want to be able to have the choice about being at home to make the Easter bonnets with my children, because nobody else will be there to do it.’ And I absolutely understood that.

"How do we make an organisation work that allows people to have that kind of parental and human fulfilment and still have stretching, satisfying roles at the most senior levels of government?"

“So my frustration is, how do we make an organisation work that allows people to have that kind of parental and human fulfilment and still have stretching, satisfying roles at the most senior levels of government? I don’t think we’re describing those roles, and people aren’t seeing them in a way that they can relate to. And that might be one of the reasons why we’re not getting where we need to be on this.”

On a personal level, getting where she needed to be has taken Evans to the very top of the Scottish civil service at a time of unprecedented political change and uncertainty. So where next? 

Unlike their Whitehall counterparts, Scottish government perm secs serve five-year fixed terms – “which doesn’t mean to say I wouldn’t have a bit longer, or indeed quite a bit shorter if things don’t go to plan!” Evans says with a laugh. 

She has not decided what she’ll do after stepping down – “I’ve never planned my career” – but says the fixed term provides “a very helpful focus to know that you have five years in which to make a difference”. 

Finally, is she having fun? “There are a lot of aspects to this job which are great fun,” she says. “I know that might be hard to understand for people who are sitting there looking at it but, to be honest, where else would you want to be a civil servant than in Scotland at the moment?”

Evans on…
...Whether Brexit will derail implementing the Scotland Act

“We’re already well under way with implementing the 2016 Scotland Act and actually the 2012 Act, which is still resonating. With all pieces of legislation, but particularly big constitutional shifts like this, they don’t all come into being on March 23, as it were. They are staggered over a period of time, but they are well planned. So I suppose the simple answer is that what has come out of the EU referendum impacts absolutely everything. It doesn’t impact on the Scotland Act and our preparation for that any more than it does on our addressing key competence issues such as the health service and the work we’re doing on the education system.

"It is of crucial importance to the first minister and the Scottish government that the Scottish government continues to be delivering competent, reformed business as usual.”

Evans on…
...Working with HMRC to prepare for Scotland’s new fiscal powers

“Continuity – in terms of quality of service – is key in being allocated new powers. That remains a crucial bottom line. We have been working very closely and productively with HMRC – particularly looking at ensuring we have the right tax paying population accuracy in Scotland.

There have been some tests and checks about how that relationship is working from an external perspective, and some discussion in parliament about this. It actually feels, from an outside perspective, that that’s working very well.

So I would never be complacent, and I’m sure HMRC would not be either. This is new territory, but they’ve worked really well with us. We’ve all been very open with each other and we will do as much as we can to make sure that that relationship remains robust.”

Evans on…
...Whether she misses her arts and culture roles

[Evans, a music graduate, has served in a variety of arts and recreation positions in the public sector] “The thing is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re assistant director for producing staples or something – it’s always about a leadership role. And they’re different in terms of what it is that you’re leading and sometimes what it is in you that it satisfies. But the challenges actually are quite similar. And I learnt so much in my early leadership and management roles about how to work with people, how to get the best of people, how to make change. I learnt by making mistakes, I learnt by some successes. I look back now and think it’s frightening what I was being given to do at a very early age! But that all should add to your experience, your understanding. Not just of how organisations work, but the human condition. Because ultimately all these jobs are about people and relationships.”

 Evans on…
...Job shares in the Scottish government

“We’ve just got a director-level job share. We’ve had some in the past, but this is in a really meaty, high-profile policy area, which I’m so delighted about. I’d prefer not to say what it is, as they may prefer not to be identified, but it’s two really able women that we’ve got working in there. And I took a personal interest in making sure that that worked.”


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