Civil servants in Scotland and Wales lacked the capacity to handle new responsibilities that devolution afforded them 20 years ago but rapidly rose to the challenge, a new Institute for Government project has found.
In a special instalment of its Ministers Reflect series marking two decades of devolution, the think tank interviewed Welsh Government and Scottish Government veterans to gain insight on their experiences on working with Westminster and Whitehall and the changing landscape of power.
Among the project’s findings are the challenges faced by officials in transitioning from policy-takers to policymakers, and the demands of a far greater degree of political oversight than in the past.
Devolved administration ministers also told the IfG project team, led by Akash Paun, that in 1999 the learning curve had been steep because capacity afforded by existing civil service structures was “inadequate” for the new era.
“They were previously accountable to ministers in the Scottish Office and Welsh Office, but these ministers spent much of their time at Westminster and in their constituencies and so had less day-to-day involvement with the civil servants,” the Ministers Reflect on Devolution paper said.
“The new governments also had more ministers than there had been in the old territorial offices.
“Furthermore, the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly also meant that the work of government in Scotland and Wales started to be scrutinised far more closely by legislators.”
Paun’s team said several interviewees felt the civil service “took some time” to adapt to the new context, as the machinery of government and officials' skillsets had to change substantially.
Alun Michael, who was the Labour first minister of Wales from 1999 to 2000 said his officials had “no experience of dealing with elected representatives, no experience of dealing with journalists and no experience of dealing with the public”.
Ieuan Wyn Jones, deputy first minister of Wales from 2007 to 2011, said that the need for policy staff had been a significant shift. “In the days of the old Welsh Office, you didn’t need policy staff,” he said.
“Basically, they were given a grant and they just carried on with it, so the policy was Westminster policy and they just delivered it in Wales.”
He said the sudden presence of ministers with their own policy plans came as “quite a shock”.
Carwyn Jones, first minister of Wales from 2009 to 2018, said the challenges also provided new opportunities, offering ambitious civil servants reasons to work in Cardiff rather than Whitehall.
Jones said: “It was simply a question of saying to some of the people who had been here for a long time: ‘Look, it’s not a backwater department anymore. We need to be doing things. We need to do this, do that, you need to be doing it; and by the way there’s no England template, you’ve got to do it yourself.’
“And also, as we developed our powers we became far more attractive for bright young graduates particularly, to be in Wales. Because they saw there was a chance here for innovation.”
The IfG team observed that the Scottish Office of 1999 had greater capacity and more experience of designing policies and drafting legislation that differed from those pursued in England. It added that Scottish devolution had also benefited from a longer period of public debate about how the new institutions would work, which may have helped to ensure that the civil service was better prepared.
However, the team noted that parts of the civil service in Edinburgh had to be reorganised to meet the demands of the incoming government of Donald Dewar in 1999.
Lord McConnell, who was Scotland’s first finance minister in 1999, said Dewar had to be persuaded to create the role – but decided to combine it with other functions, such as responsibility for the civil service, Europe and external relations.
“It felt like this was a job that was not really perceived to be a full-time job, and therefore it had to be filled,” McConnell said. “But of course, it proved to be the most difficult job because there wasn’t a [finance] department and there wasn’t a permanent secretary and there wasn’t initially cohesion between the remits.”
Lord McConnell said he spent his first six months trying to bring the functions together, including through a new management committee comprising officials from the different parts of his job.
“There were linkages between the different functions,” he said. “They were not always obvious, but I was trying to turn it into a cohesive department, with limited success maybe…”
Devolution also exposed gaps in civil service capacity to cope with devolved administrations’ new powers, the report found.
Andrew Davies, who was Welsh transport minister when responsibility for railways was partially devolved from Westminster in 2005, said there had been a lack of engineering capacity to deal with the change in his department because the expertise was in road rather than rail. “We basically had to get people in quickly to give us the expertise,” he observed.
Carwyn Jones made a similar observation in relation to the ability draft legislation when the National Assembly gained full primary legislative powers in 2011.
“The biggest challenge we faced was developing the skills to draft primary legislation, because there was no expertise at all in the old Welsh Office,” he said – adding that a requirement for drafters to be bilingual did not help.
Ministers Reflect on Devolution can be read here.