Civil servants thought Scottish independence debate would fade, and ministers should treat officials as allies – ex-ministers reflect

“There was an expectation that perhaps, certainly in the civil service ‘well, we’ve had that referendum and we’ll move on’": David Mundell, David Gauke and Sam Gyimah share their experiences in government for the IfG series
Photo: PA

Civil servants working on the Scottish independence referendum mistakenly thought the issue would fade away after the vote, former Scottish secretary David Mundell has said.

Speaking to the Institute for Government for its Ministers Reflect series, Mundell, who was a Scotland Office minister at the time of the 2014 referendum, said “there was an expectation that perhaps, certainly in the civil service ‘well, we’ve had that referendum and we’ll move on’, when in fact we didn’t move on and we haven’t moved on”.

After the referendum – in which the UK government campaigned for Scotland to remain part of the union – the UK Governance Group was established to lead the UK government’s work on constitution and devolution and improve intergovernmental relations.

But while that was set up to ensure better governance, Mundell said “actually we were caught still in a campaign”, and the longevity of the issue had not been initially appreciated by officials.

“And that’s where we are now, this is a campaign, it’s not about more powers. It’s clear there will never be enough powers. Either you accept a devolved settlement, or you want independence. There isn’t some middle way on that. I think we didn’t, in that period, enter the environment we thought we would,” he said.

Mundell reflected that the government’s partial stance had been “a little bit uncomfortable” for civil servants who were used to being rigorously impartial.

But, he said, the cross-Whitehall structures behind the referendum were “very effective”.

“The chancellor chaired a cabinet sub-committee in relation to the referendum and when the chancellor chairs something people listen, so it was dealt with at the highest level,” he said. Several other committees were in place, with senior civil servants like the then-permanent secretary in the Treasury, Sir Nick Macpherson, “heavily involved”, which Mundell said meant he was confident the referendum was a priority for No.10.

‘If you have clarity, civil servants will support you’

One of the biggest lessons Mundell said he learned during nine years in the Scotland Office – first as parliamentary under-secretary of state and then as secretary of state from 2015 to 2019 – was that it was important for ministers to give civil servants “clarity” about their objectives.

“I think it’s very important to work closely with your civil servants: they are there to help and advise. But you also need to be confident in your own aspirations, what you want to do, and you’ll give clear guidance to civil servants as to what it is you want to achieve, what the output you’re looking for is,” he said.

“I think if they have clarity, then they will help and support you to achieve your objectives.”

Mundell said he had been “very open” to a proposal by then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to have more appraisals of ministers by civil servants of ministers because “I would rather know what the civil servants thought of me than not”.

“If I was doing things that were unhelpful or not effective, I’d prefer that somebody was saying that to you, because then you can change your behaviours, or you can reassess how things are working,” he said.

“I find doing, for example, 360-degree feedback very helpful because some of the feedback from the civil service wasn’t necessarily what I would have anticipated, for example.”

Over nearly a decade in the Scotland Office, Mundell said his approach to working with civil servants changed significantly as he came to realise that officials also “welcomed frank and open feedback”.

“What they were looking for in ministers is clarity in terms of what it is that you’re looking for, what you’re looking to achieve, what the outcome is,” he said.

For that reason, Mundell said he tried to be “as honest as he could” with officials, discouraging them from sinking time and effort into proposals that were not going to progress.

“I always sought to have less submissions but better-quality submissions, to learn to reject things early. Like, we’re just not doing this. And therefore, not wasting time and effort in going through something then we’re not going to do it,” he said.

When he first entered the Scotland Office in 2010, Mundell said he accepted around nine in 10 submissions put to him by civil servants. By the time he left, that proportion had dropped to just one in 10.

“I was a very unusual minister because I was in the Scotland Office for nine and a half years, and then you know it, if you do that length of time, you know how it works. Initially, I think that as with most ministers, you accept the format that you’re given and it’s only as you become more experienced and more confident that then you look for a different format,” he added.

“At the end of the day, I saw a lot of my role both as minister and secretary of state as really identifying from all the things that come in what is important, what isn’t. That comes through political experience, through understanding the government’s objectives, understanding the impact of things,” he explained.

‘See the civil service as your allies’

Two-time cabinet minister David Gauke, who also spoke to the IfG for the series, also stressed the importance of seeking the civil service as “allies in delivering your priorities”.

Asked what advice he would give to new ministers, Gauke, who served as both work and pensions, and justice secretary, said: “Make sure that you use your time to focus on your priorities, that you pursue them vigorously, determinedly, and if you’ve got clear priorities make sure that they’re properly communicated to the department so that they understand what you’re about. Then bring people along with you...

“It is about communication, it is about explanation, it is about building up those relationships. See the civil service as your allies, because in my view it is right that if you give them a clear sense of direction, show that you’ve sensibly thought out an approach, the civil service will help you deliver.”

Gauke had high praise for the officials he worked with. “The Treasury civil servants have got this excellent reputation. In my experience, they were outstanding – whether that was looking at the tax side, or whether it was looking at the spending side,” he said.

He added: “They’d move around, but they grasped the issues... My experience was that consistently, you had very, very able people who were able to adapt to their responsibilities.”

‘Ministers have to show leadership’

Sam Gyimah, who was a prisons minister from 2016 to 2018 and then universities minister for just under a year, meanwhile warned ministers against “a temptation to treat everything you are told by officials and civil servants, especially where it’s to do with ‘there isn’t enough money’... with scepticism”.

“I think [you need] an honest analytical assessment of what the challenge is, and then an action plan to address it. So, I think you’ve got to be quite technocratic about that kind of challenge,” he said.

And Gyimah also spoke of the importance of using organisational structures to signal priorities to civil servants in a department.

When he was trying to deliver a commitment to recruit 2,500 new prison officers in 18 months, Gyimah said he created a dedicated space on the ninth floor of the Ministry of Justice headquarters in Whitehall for ministers, officials and private-sector contractors who were working on the project.

“They all sat in the same place, we had progress charts on the wall, I went to see them twice a day, I had meetings with them regularly. And that sent a signal to the department that this was really important, that ministers were taking it seriously,” he said.

“By giving it that level of prominence and focus, we made huge strides in delivering our objectives,” he added.

“Here, I think, is where ministers have to show leadership in the department, to signal that the organisational re-design of prisons and increasing the number of prisons was the most important challenge of the department."

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