Scottish Government decision making can be 'rushed and unclear', ex-officials warn

Financial rules are sometimes seen as "bureaucratic or optional", former civil servants tell committee
A Scottish Government building at Victoria Quay, Leith, Edinburgh. Photo: Clearview/Alamy Stock Photo

Decision making in the Scottish Government is sometimes “rushed, unclear and unstructured”, with financial rules sometimes ignored or treated as a “tick-box exercise”, former officials have warned.

Civil servants giving evidence to a parliamentary committee have said financial rules are “not always implemented fully” across the Scottish Government because they are sometimes seen “as bureaucratic or as optional”.

MSPs were told that, for example, that the process of budget equality assessments was “well understood by a few teams but not understood by some others” – in which cases equality assessments happened at the end of the budget process or “became a tick-box exercise”.

The warning came in a discussion between Scottish civil servants, special advisers, former ministers and members of Holyrood’s Finance and Public Administration Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into effective Scottish Government decision-making.

Notes from the discussion – one of several that took place in February and March – published this week point to time constraints as one of the pitfalls in decision making.

“More realism was needed about the time necessary to prepare a budget (although as a predictable annual cycle it shouldn’t need to be rushed) as well as what can be achieved in the time available. Without this, the ability to deliver good outcomes can be compromised as soon as the policy hits the real world,” the document says.

“It was felt by some that the pace of decision-making was directing things. The framework was there but speed up decision-making and it impacts on the ability to interact with different parts of the organisation and record those interactions.”

Overall, the group concluded that “decision-making in reality was different compared with models of decision-making”, and that processes and the use of business cases and appraisals were “generally not consistent”.

“The process was generally unclear and unstructured,” they added.

The 11 participants in the February discussion included Sarah Davison, former DG for organisational development and operations; civil service commissioner Paul Gray, who was chief executive of NHS Scotland and director general for health and social care from 2013 to 2019; and former chief procurement officer Alastair Merrill. The published notes provide a summary of the overall discussion, rather than identifying each participant’s contributions.

The same group noted that despite the challenges in the process, “there were thousands of decisions taken by the Scottish Government and most worked perfectly well and ‘we generally only hear about the ones where there were difficulties’”.

The inquiry also took evidence from former ministers, who highlighted high levels of turnover among both ministers and officials as a challenge for effective decision making.

When ministers move between portfolios, “any expertise they built up may then be lost and the incoming minister, who inherited these decisions, may have different views on how (if at all) the policy was then delivered”, one group said.

“It was regarded as unrealistic, given ministerial churn, for ministers to act as project managers. Attendees also questioned the appropriateness of such a role for ministers,” read the notes from a meeting in which three former ministers gave evidence to the committee.

Meanwhile, frequent job changes among civil servants can lead to a “loss of expertise and relationships with stakeholders and ministers losing effective support at important times”, the evidence warned.

“It was highlighted that it can negatively impact on a challenge culture whereby civil servants who have worked hard on a policy then move and there is then no-one prepared to ‘argue’ for that policy when a new incoming minister considers changing focus –  a full treasury function in the Scottish Government was proposed as a way to build in that challenge function,” it added.

To bolster this “challenge culture”, the same group stressed the importance of good relationships and communication between officials and politicians.

“It was important for effective decision-making that civil servants could bring forward options without constraints (such as during times of austerity) which could then be explored – even if those constraints then later ruled those options out,” the summary of the 14 March meeting read.

Other challenges raised in the series of discussions included instances of ministers attempting to solve problems before receiving advice, forcing civil servants to “reverse engineer it”; difficulty collaborating across departments; and a need for more commercial and private-sector expertise and understanding of negotiating tactics.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We do not agree with this report and there are a number of processes which are routinely taken when making important policy decisions. We look forward to giving evidence to the committee in the near future.”

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