By Joshua.Chambers

02 Jul 2010

We haven’t had a coalition government in Westminster since the 1940s – but Scottish civil servants have almost ten years of recent experience in working for a coalition. Joshua Chambers went to Holyrood to pick their brains

“Don’t use any captions about ‘sofa government’,” Sir John Elvidge warns me, as our photographer snaps him perching on the edge of his couch. “Okay,” I reply; “Let’s get a picture of you outside instead.”

It is raining quite heavily, but the Scottish Government’s permanent secretary is persuaded to stand on the balcony of St Andrew’s House: a 1930s building with beautiful panoramic views of Edinburgh on one side, and the Pentland foothills stretching out on the other.

Soon the permanent secretary starts to become increasingly soggy, before sprinting back into the building five minutes late for an important meeting. Apparently, the gathered civil servants had never seen him move so quickly. There may be many lessons from Scotland’s coalition experience, but CSW seems to have taught Sir John one more: never pose for photos in the rain.

Scottish civil servants have tackled two coalitions since devolution in 1999, the second of which ended only at the 2007 election – when the Scottish National Party formed a minority government. So, following in the footsteps of many Whitehall civil servants – including the cabinet secretary  – CSW visited Edinburgh to interview Scottish civil servants on their experiences of coalition government. 

In fact, both coalitions were rather different, explains Elvidge. “Over the eight years of coalition, we had experience of two different models,” he says. “First, in 1999 it was a rather broad agreement with some guiding principles and a relatively limited number of high-priority commitments picked out. Second, in 2003, we had a very detailed programme of agreement – ours ran to just over 460 commitments that the two parties agreed on.”

The level of detail in the 2003 agreement reflected what officials and politicians had learned in the first coalition: a vague or patchy agreement is a recipe for trouble. And the Cabinet Office were watching: the UK coalition agreement is a hefty tome. But there are plenty of other obstacles that Whitehall hasn’t yet encountered – and the Scottish civil servants were keen to help their southern counterparts avoid the bear traps.

Special advisers (‘spads’) are often treated with suspicion in Whitehall, but many Scottish civil servants praised their role in a coalition; in this environment, the spads could liaise to clear away political obstacles that civil servants couldn’t touch. Russell Bain, policy coordinator for public service reform, explains: “Being able to have quite open conversations with special advisers about where they felt their minister would be on a particular issue was really important. There are obviously issues around the political which are not for us to make; knowing the special advisers have had that conversation makes the job a good bit easier.”
Many others agreed. Liz Hunter, now director of equalities, social inclusion and sport, and formerly head of cabinet and ministerial support during the coalition, says: “As the years went on, the trust that developed between the team of special advisers and civil servants became more noticeable. We would be working towards the same aims, so we were often having discussions saying: ‘What’s the problem here, what’s the blockage, and what needs to happen in order to remove that blockage?’”

Some blockages could be dealt with by civil servants, but more often policy proposals needed to win consensus on political issues. This was the domain of special advisers, who would have individual conversations with MSPs or party members. Yet while it would be the spads’ job to deal with political issues, civil servants would have to be aware of them – their antennae highly attuned to the machinations of party politics. A balance was required: fall off one side of the tightrope and civil servants could be too ignorant of political issues; wobble off the other, and civil servants could be overtly politicised or seen to be manoeuvring on behalf of ministers.

Media management
With journalists probing aggressively for any sign of a split in the coalition, the presentation of policies was of key importance. Andrew Baird has been head of news for many years, briefing to the press once a day. “There was the need to make sure that the news programme you were briefing covered things that both sides of the coalition were active on,” he recalls. “Some days it might be Lib Dems leading on an issue, equally the next day it could be a Labour minister”. Throughout the coalition, the news department had to brief in a way that showed the totality of the government’s plans.

Sometimes, though, officials had to work with an obvious difference between the parties. In these cases, the parties obviously had to come to a compromise – and then the party most keen on the policy would be put in the lead to champion it. Meanwhile, in departments, the minister was always from one party and the deputy from the other. Russell Bain notes that “there would be points where it was easier to use the deputy minister for certain events or issues and the minister for other issues, depending on the type of audience and the sort of message you wished to get across.”

Written agreement
The second coalition’s overall message was set out in the coalition’s 460 commitments – but even that couldn’t anticipate every eventuality. According to Sir John: “It is a challenge finding a form of partnership agreement which on the one hand cements trust between the two political parties, and on the other hand isn’t too much of a straitjacket to cope with changes in the external environment; changes in the world.”

Scottish civil servants, he adds, learned that “prioritisation in some form is helpful. An organisation can’t work to a programme of 400-odd things that are all considered to be of equal importance. That’s not helpful in terms of focusing resources; it’s not helpful in sequencing the work of an organisation. We’ve learnt that partnership agreements need considerable capacity to respond to change over four years – probably more than people ever anticipate.

“There needs to be an understanding about how the two political parties involved are going to be able to revisit the agreement,” he continues. “The danger, I think, is starting off with an unrealistic assumption that an agreement can remain unchanging.”

Does this mean that civil servants may struggle to help reconcile internal conflicts over new policies? The responsibilities of power will bind the parties together, replies Sir John: “You’re making the assumption that in a coalition government, the two parties continue to think of themselves as separate players. In a coalition they don’t; they rapidly think of themselves as one team conducting the difficult business of government.”

“Yes, obviously there’s a process of helping ministers understand what’s changing and how that may impact on their intentions,” he adds. “There’s nothing fundamentally different about that between coalition government and single-party government. All governments go through that process of having to adapt their programme to changing circumstances – but I would call it a process of explanation and analysis rather than a process of persuading one party to give ground.”

Keeping people informed
Unity between the top players can actually be dangerous, however, if it allows a split to develop between ministers and their parties. Special advisers can provide some of the glue, keeping ministers informed of the mood of their backbenchers and parties. But civil servants also have a role to play, sharing information and ensuring that all of the interested parties are properly informed.

Sir John explains that “our traditional patterns of government are not as good as they might be at sharing information and analysis with a wide circle of people. I would say that one of the features of the devolution journey is that we as an organisation have become much better at sharing our knowledge; sharing our analysis and understanding with a much wider range of stakeholders.”

This was an issue with the 2005 Licensing Act, where four years of careful policy-drafting suddenly became irrelevant when it became clear that Labour backbenchers wouldn’t accept the legislation. As head of the Local Governance and Licensing Division, Rab Fleming was involved in that bill, which was already controversial because it drastically changed the government’s focus from encouraging a café society to tackling binge drinking, underage drinking and the health issues caused by alcohol.

Fleming, now deputy director for IT and business support, explains that the government “ended up with something that was compromised fairly significantly at the last minute because the backbenchers of one party decided not to toe the line in terms of what their ministers had agreed.”

The minister, Tom McCabe, hadn’t been kept in touch with the mood of his party, as Fleming explains: “It was only at the end of the process that the minister had even a whiff that something had gone wrong on the back benches. The lesson is that for things where public opinion is changing or there’s some sort of change in the air, ministers have to be really, really adept at being tuned into what those changes mean for the backbenchers.”

This was a party political issue – but nonetheless the civil service could have done more. Right at the end of the licensing debacle, ministers briefed backbenchers, but civil servants also took part in presentations and question-and-answer sessions, rather than simply giving written briefings. Fleming says that “if we had have done that earlier, ministers would have had a better sense of what the backbenchers were thinking.”

The civil servants working on the Licensing Act were, obviously, frustrated by the outcome. A key lesson from Scotland is that, in a political and legislative environment this complex, civil servants mustn’t become too attached to their policies to change them.

PR parallels

“We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies.” 

The Coalition: our Programme for Government, 2010.

Russell Bain and Rab Fleming were the lead officials on the introduction of a new voting system in the Scottish local government elections of 2007. Reform of the voting system was the biggest priority for the Scottish Liberal Democrats; their membership of the coalition centred on it. Obviously, there are clear parallels here with the UK political situation – and some important lessons to learn.

The work was kicked off early in the Parliament, with legislation being passed in 2005 and another act in 2006. According to Bain, “virtually every minute was necessary.” If the electoral system is to be changed in the UK in this Parliament, the UK government will need to bring about the legislation required as quickly as possible.

Redrawing the council ward boundaries was the hardest task for Bain and Fleming, with 1,222 wards being boiled down to 353. This was a mammoth task, and one carried out against a background of opposition from Labour councillors who were worried they would lose their seats. According to Bain, he and Fleming would have to send “flurries” of reminders, constantly trying to ensure that they met their deadline: May 3rd 2007, election day.

Politics intervenes

It wasn’t an easy process, and the biggest challenge faced was reaching political agreement on something that hadn’t been set out in advance: the format of the ballot paper. As Fleming explains, “One of the things in the original act which hadn’t really been decided in any detail, and was left to nearer the time, was the format of the ballot paper. I think it’s fair to say the two coalition partners could not agree at all about what the ballot paper should look like; they had two diametrically-opposed views.”

A further problem was that as the election drew nearer, politicians started to think less about the reform process and more about the result of the election. According to Fleming, “they tended to fall back into more party political modes, rather than the partnership mode they’d been in before, and that issue was probably the trickiest one because we couldn’t get the ministers on either side of the coalition to agree.”

How did they resolve it? Bain says that “we ended up with a kind of agreement to disagree. We had to make a deal on process, because we were getting to the point where if we hadn’t been able to reach something we were really too late to get things in for the election.”
Eventually the lead minister on electoral reform, Tom McCabe, took his party’s proposals to the Scottish Parliament’s local government committee. Bain explains that McCabe knew he wouldn’t get his version of the ballot paper agreed, but “he wanted to get absolutely on record his position”. McCabe also insisted on tieing the issue to other decisions on new election rules.

Fleming explains that working through the committee was a “perhaps lower profile way of reaching a decision”, adding: “Certainly from the Labour Party’s point of view, they knew they weren’t going to get their version of the ballot paper supported by Parliament; it was a means where they could at least state their case but not have the potential embarrassment of losing a vote in Parliament.” At this point, the press spokesman interjects, keen to point out that the approach wasn’t designed to divert media attention or scrutiny.

Following the interruption, Bain explains that, ultimately, putting the proposals through a committee did put public pressure on the politicians: “We could have continued to go around the houses to force something behind closed doors, but this is as public as you can get.” Certainly, the forum ensured that politicians were aware of the deadline, and gave a set point at which a decision should be made.

While the policy was the property of one party, Bain and Fleming sought to include as many people as possible in decision-making. Bain explains that engaging with Scotland’s returning officers – who would have to run elections using the reformed system – was particularly valuable, because “neither myself nor Rab had any sort of direct experience of elections in any way, and you’ve got a resource there that has hundreds of years of experience”.

“The bill could have created so much uncertainty and lost so much confidence that we needed to make sure we carried all those guys with us,” he adds. “I think probably the returning officers brought us a lot of credibility because effectively they were signed up to a joint plan with us; they were in it as much as we were.”

Structure, not stricture

Civil servants in Scotland found that under a coalition they had to include more people in planning and inform more people about policy; ultimately, this meant that process became more important. According to Liz Hunter, who as head of cabinet and ministerial support was at the coalition’s coalface, there is “a stronger role for the parliamentary parties, a stronger role for the processes, and a stronger role for the civil service supporting those processes than is necessarily the case in single-party government”.

Meanwhile, Scottish civil servants had to start working more closely with their counterparts across government. “The notion of big barons coming to cabinet with their policy, and with civil servants behind them helping them drive it through, doesn’t work in a coalition; they can’t get it through by force of personality,” explains Hunter. “They have to make agreements in advance; they have to have had the discussion with the other party and with the parliamentary groups in order for cabinet to be in a position to agree that policy.”

In 2007, Scotland reformed its government structures just after the end of the coalition government. It abolished its departments and created a more fluid structure, in which civil servants work across government on policy areas. Hunter compares it to a tartan, with civil servants focused on horizontal working just as much as their vertical department structures.
It is, as Sir John Elvidge said, “an open question whether that model of decentralised power across that group of 40 or so units could be successfully transferred to Whitehall”. Perhaps, but a key lesson from Scotland is that coalition prompted civil servants to question their own methods – as instructive an answer as any other they can provide to Whitehall.

Read the most recent articles written by Joshua.Chambers - Interview: Alison Munro

Share this page