Increased devolution means there will be more jagged edges between devolved powers and those retained by the UK government.
Whatever happens in the May general election, the government of the UK will change radically in the next few years – with far-reaching structural and operational implications for the civil service.
After the first wave of devolution legislation in the late 1990s, there was the convenient belief – and, in part, reality – that nothing much had changed for the civil service. Legally, officials in the UK, and the Scottish and Welsh governments were, and are, all part of a single civil service. (Northern Ireland has been the exception, having its own civil service since 1921.) This has been underpinned by common values, rules and training, demonstrated in practice by a continuing interchange of officials between the capitals and by the appointment of English men and women to the top civil service posts in Edinburgh and Cardiff. The civil service professions have tended to operate across the devolved boundaries, fostering a sense of inter-administration working. This sense of common purpose was also reinforced in the first decade by Labour dominance in the Scottish and Welsh governments, as well as in London.
Moreover, the UK government has continued to employ more civil servants in Scotland and Wales than their respective devolved governments. This has not just been in local delivery such as DWP offices but also in operations serving UK-wide policies, such as Dfid’s large office in Scotland and the Office of National Statistics in south Wales. Also, HMRC offices in Scotland and Wales serve not just residents in the two nations but taxpayers throughout the UK.
The unified approach began to be challenged in 2007 with the arrival of the SNP government, and now there is different political control of the UK and each of the three devolved governments. Nonetheless, it has been argued that, while officials in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff serve different ministers, recently with very different constitutional and social policies, they remain part of the Home Civil Service with similar values and approaches. There is evidence that, whatever the conflicts at the ministerial and political level, relations between key officials have remained good, enabling continued dialogue and co-operation at times of maximum strain, such as around last September’s referendum vote.
Nonetheless, the sense of distinctiveness has increased. The Scottish and Welsh governments have developed more of their own ethos and practices – for instance, opting out of the UK government’s performance-related pay system and, in the Scottish case, opting out of the Fast Stream graduate scheme to develop its own graduate scheme. In many ways, this is a cumulative process with an erosion of shared experiences and increasing differences in culture, pay and conditions. There are now fewer secondments between administrations which are seen as different. There are also straightforward financial difficulties in moving from Edinburgh or Cardiff to London, while movements in the opposite direction are not seen as improving career prospects in Whitehall.
All these factors are discussed in a new report from the Institute for Government, Governing in an Ever Looser Union, by my colleagues Akash Paun and Robyn Munro. After noting all the pressures pushing the civil service in the devolved nations further apart from the UK service, they stress the benefits of retaining a unified Home Civil Service. They argue that, to prevent a gradual drift towards fragmentation, there should be more active management of the Home Civil Service by civil service leaders, supported by ministers. This should include staff interchange and secondments, as well as expansion of joint training and development initiatives.
But this also requires accepting that the Home Civil Service is a federal rather than unitary entity, sharing values and standards but operating in different and distinct ways. There is also an obligation on Whitehall to make more of the many thousand civil servants working in Scotland and Wales for the UK government. Following the Scottish referendum – and despite the extended devolution of powers included in the draft clauses published in late January – there needs to be a greater recognition of the UK-wide aspects of government in Scotland and Wales in order to inject more life into the union. This contrasts with a frequent attitude in Whitehall of largely ignoring Scotland and Wales, even where there are such UK-wide responsibilities.
The IfG report more broadly discusses the challenges of strengthening inter-governmental relations, through a more joined-up approach and by reinvigorating the joint ministerial committees. The proposals for increased devolution – already proposed for Scotland and now being discussed for Wales – also imply that there will be more jagged edges between powers that are devolved and those that are retained by the UK government. There is likely to be more overlap, notably in welfare, skills and employment, while a number of major national bodies, including HMRC, Ofcom, Ofgem etc, will operate across boundaries and work with more than one government.
In short, making devolution work within an increasingly federal UK will require more, not less, attention from civil servants at the centre.