By CivilServiceWorld

21 Apr 2010

If the election produces a hung Parliament, civil servants will look to Scotland, which has seen both a coalition and a minority government. Ruth Keeling gets some tips from its permanent secretary, Sir John Elvidge

Sir John Elvidge (pictured above) has been permanent secretary of the Scottish Government since 2003 – first to the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition government, and latterly to the minority Scottish National Party government since it was elected in 2007. With civil servants in England making preparations for the possibility of a hung Parliament, his experience of coalition and minority government could be invaluable.

Speaking one day after the general election had been called, he told CSW that the most important thing for civil servants in England to remember is that neither politicians nor officials have experienced minority or coalition government. “When you come out of a period when very large parliamentary majorities have been a dominant feature of governments for most of the past 30 years, that whole process of cross-party engagement is something that people have not gained much experience of in any form. So to be pitched into quite an extreme form of it is very challenging for people.”

Politicians, he explains, will need the civil service to create “good and stable government” within this unfamiliar territory – and it will be the duty of the civil service to be proactive, he adds. “Don’t be shy; don’t think this is a place where you are not welcome, or where you shouldn’t be,” he advises.

But there are, he warns, potential pitfalls to coalition government, and such a result would put almost everyone on a steep learning curve. In this situation civil servants must “think hard” about the need to be impartial, “because, when you are dealing simultaneously with more than one political party, and it is very important that each of them trusts the integrity of the civil service they are dealing with, it requires a bit of sharpening-up of the way we make sure we demonstrate our professionalism”.

Although the civil service in Scotland is now serving a single party government, the SNP holds just 32 per cent of the seats. With the Labour and Lib Dem coalition the process of negotiating was very formal and structured, Elvidge says, with civil servants needing to be extremely careful that, for example, both parties got to see documents at the same time. With a minority government, he continues, there is a much broader choice of partners; the process of securing a majority on legislation is much more fluid; and when considering how votes will turn out, civil servants “can think almost exclusively about the substance of the issue” rather than concentrating on fulfilling the formal process agreed by the coalition partners.

There are, he concludes, benefits to both set-ups: coalitions create a presumption that legislation will be passed, but civil servants must be careful to serve the partners equally; minority governments need to constantly find agreement on new laws, but the process of negotiation within government is “much simpler”.

Maintaining impartiality
While it might be imagined that concerns about impartiality would be less acute under the single-party government of the SNP than they were while the civil service was serving two masters in the coalition government, Sir John has in fact been criticised for being too partial to the SNP government; the Scottish Conservatives complained that taxpayers’ money was being used to plan for the break-up of the UK, with civil servants working on the ‘National Conversation’ about future independence for Scotland.

Sir John says the criticism that the civil service is too close to the SNP is unfair. “It is the duty of any civil service to construct a strong, functioning working relationship with the ministers they work with, because it is clearly in the public interest that that should be so,” he explains. The problem, as he sees it, stems from the idea that somehow a minority government doesn’t have the same rights as a government which holds a majority.

“You get a clash between that bit of constitutional theory that is really about the pragmatism of government – the governing party must be able to call on the full services of the civil service – and democratic theory, which says somehow if you didn’t win a majority that must imply that your rights are not the same,” he explains.

“I simply don’t think [the latter] is right, but I understand why someone might explore that set of ideas, so I don’t hold it against them,” he adds. The critics’ complaints may be sharpened by the fact that part of the UK civil service is working on a project that has the potential to break the UK up further. However, it is not the job of the civil service to “start picking and choosing” which policies it will support, Elvidge argues – that way “you start to go into some difficult territory,” he says. It is also incorrect to believe that, just because Scottish civil servants are part of the UK civil service, the UK government has some “overriding authority” on what civil servants in Scotland should work on. That would not be right, he insists – and he says cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell is of the same view. “The reality is that you can only serve one set of elected ministers,” he adds.

This comment begs the question: is there a difference, for the Scottish civil service, between serving an SNP government – a party whose undivided focus is on Scotland – and a government made up of parties which are part of a wider UK party system? Yes, he answers; a Liberal Democrat, Conservative or Labour government would be “interested in the consistency of policy [between England and Scotland] in a party sense as well as in a practical sense”; that would create an “additional complexity of party thinking”. This does not imply, he is quick to add, that the SNP has no interest in the way Scotland and England will work together – “There are just different ways of constructing that important relationship”.

Returning to the criticism that civil servants should not have worked on the SNP’s referendum and independence plans, Sir John admits that he was – and still is –unhappy at becoming the focus of the story. “I do get frustrated if people conduct what seem to me to be essentially constitutional arguments through a debate about me, or any other individual,” he says.

In the public eye
Generally speaking, however, Elvidge is not averse to the idea that civil servants should come out from behind their desks and make themselves known.

“I’m one of those who believe it is beneficial for civil servants to have a degree of public profile,” he explains. The risks associated with that – of personal criticism when things go wrong or when constitutional debates play out, for example – are a price worth paying for “talking publicly about the success and contribution of the civil service”, he argues. “I do not think there is any point in fretting about whether [criticism] is fair or not – one of the things that senior civil servants have to have is broad backs.”

Making yourself visible to the public is little different from making yourself visible and accountable to stakeholders, he argues; although when criticisms arise in the media “there is never any right of reply of any practical value”. With stakeholders, civil servants can have an equal dialogue, but “when you are criticised in the media, then it is effectively a one-sided process.”

Sir John does not believe that all ranks should be equally visible, of course. It is tough, he says, for junior officials whose appearance in the media is a one-off and in a negative light. “I know from experience that it is deeply wounding to more junior members of staff to be criticised around something that has gone wrong, particularly if they were absolutely giving it their best efforts,” he says. He is “careful about not making unreasonable expectations of people, and you have to be conscious that the consequences of getting it wrong can be quite painful.”

However, Scottish civil service directors, who report to Sir John, are expected to be visible to stakeholders. “The ability to cope with that accountability and visibility is one of the skills that we ought to expect from the senior civil service,” he argues. Therefore, if there is any naming and shaming to be done, it should be the senior officials who have to take it on their broad shoulders. “If there is any unfairness to be handed out, it should be handed out at the top of the organisation,” says Sir John.

The changing face of the civil service, and the skills that civil servants need to contribute, is an issue for the civil service in Scotland – which, Sir John says, “is on quite a radical journey”. In a December 2009 interview with Civil Service World, Sir John said that his biggest challenge in 2009 had been about people; specifically, about changing the leadership team so that it could deliver what is necessary for the Scottish government. He describes the service as having gone through a number of stages, all of which have required different skills: first delivering on devolution, for example, followed by a focus on “creative policymaking” in order to reflect Scotland’s separateness. These changes mean that “from time to time, the people whose skills were absolutely right for the task during one phase are not the best fit for another phase”.

Elvidge insists that this does not have to mean upheaval and a demoralised staff; in fact, he says, discussions with individuals have “by and large” meant they have identified where and what they would like to do next. “Once you start people thinking about that, and you make it clear to them that they’ve got a tremendous amount to offer, often they find the thing that is right for them – and then my job is to make that happen,” he explains.

The latest stage in Scottish government has been the creation of a single government unit – with departments abolished and replaced by directorates, and Sir John and five director-generals forming a strategic board. Responsible for delivering the government’s agenda, it’s a Scottish solution to the problem of departments failing to join up their policies. England has long grappled with the same conundrum: cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell has used Civil Service World’s website to moot the idea of cross-government budgets in the past, and more recently the prime minister suggested that the technological revolution might allow for fewer government departments and more cross-government units. Scotland’s relative development on this issue is, says Sir John, partly down to its size; partly due to the fact that Scotland is “building on a stronger sense of common identity”; and partly because it starts the year with an aggregated budget.

Getting the data
The focus now, he continues, is on showing that the new structures deliver better services. Sir John believes the government has made a successful link between health and justice issues: a slowdown in the growth of the prison population, he says, is due to the government’s “aggressive push on alcohol policy”, which has culminated in an Alcohol Bill including measures such as minimum pricing. He believes it is credible to link the two, but admits that questions remain over the evidence behind switching funding from one priority – prison places – to another: health. Scotland’s aggregate budget puts it at an advantage in this regard, argues Elvidge. “We start from one budget and [consequently] our processes of financial planning are more integrated than they are in, say, Whitehall,” he says.

The difficulty of measuring outcomes has come up in another area: efficiency savings. A recent Audit Scotland report said it was unable to validate the £839m savings reported for 2008-09 because the supporting information “is not complete or consistent”. In particular, there is a lack of data on impacts on the quality of service. This is not a problem that is particular to Scotland – English departments have also had their savings questioned by the National Audit Office – and Sir John says he views the Scottish auditor’s report positively. In a perfect world, he says, he would like the data to provide a more exact picture of the impact of savings; and that is the aim. However, he adds, the auditors only said they were unable to verify the figures with absolute certainty, rather than suggesting that the savings weren’t genuine.

Sir John also agrees with the auditors’ conclusion that a two per cent reduction over the coming years will not be enough to meet the gap between funding and spending, and says the government will be aiming for a three per cent per annum reduction in real terms. He believes there is more to be done on efficiency before cuts are discussed – Scotland has done well on reducing procurement spend, but really needs to up its game on collaboration and, in particular, shared services, where Sir John has already signalled to arms’-length bodies that they must, rather than should, use shared services to save money.

Civil servants in England and Scotland are facing very similar problems. However, if the election doesn’t produce a clear outcome then English civil servants may soon find themselves following in the footsteps of their counterparts north of the border. At that point, civil servants in England will be faced with an entirely alien situation, as Sir John says, and will be grappling in the dark alongside their equally inexperienced political masters. Fortunately, there are some experts just across the border who will be able to advise on the opportunities, the pitfalls – and the way forward.

CV: Sir John Elvidge
1972: Graduates from St Catherine’s College, Oxford
1973: Joins the Scottish Office
1989: Becomes director of Scottish Homes agency
1998: Appointed deputy head of the Cabinet Office’s economic and domestic secretariat
1999: Becomes head of education, Scottish Executive
2002: Made head of finance and central services directorate
2003: Appointed permanent secretary to Scottish Executive
2007: Oversees shift as executive becomes ‘Scottish Government’ under the SNP administration

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