Scottish perm sec Leslie Evans: civil servants still see moving between Edinburgh and Whitehall as "very difficult"

Sharing of staff and ideas between Holyrood and Westminster still hindered by "a bit of a perception" it will require upheaval for civil servants, says Scotland's top official - as she stresses "need to recognise each others’ evolving roles"

By Matt Foster

25 Feb 2016

Civil servants can be reluctant to move between Whitehall and the devolved administrations because of a “perception” that to do so could cause disruption to their lives, Scotland’s top official Leslie Evans has said. 

Despite the increasing transfer of powers to Scotland in recent years — with more on tax and welfare to follow in the wake of the Scottish referendum — the civil service in Scotland remains part of the wider UK civil service. Around 44,000 officials work north of the border, with approximately 27,000 working for UK government departments and 17,000 owing their loyalty to the Scottish administration. 

Evans, the Scottish government’s permanent secretary, told an event hosted by the Institute for Government this week that she had “deliberately prioritised” improved understanding between civil servants in the two administrations since her appointment in May of last year.

Whitehall urged to improve “ad hoc” data sharing with governments in Holyrood, Stormont and Cardiff
Scotland’s top civil servant Leslie Evans on her first months in the job – and her plans for 2016

“Improving and strengthening effective working relationships begins with me, at the head of the Scottish government,” she said. 

But the Scottish perm sec acknowledged the sometimes “tense” political differences between the Conservative government in Westminster and Scotland’s SNP administration, and warned of the risks of “relatively low levels of awareness and limited incentives” to improve understanding between Edinburgh and Whitehall. 

“We need to recognise each others’ evolving roles, and the distinct policy and political contexts, to nurture this understanding and the opportunities it brings for us to learn from each other. 

“For the UK government, decentralisation to England’s cities will demand this level of understanding and recognition just as much as devolution across the UK. This is valuable learning, applicable, I think on a range of canvases. 

“Secondly, the Scottish government can share and showcase innovation. Although there often feels like a high degree of separation between debates in London and Edinburgh, we share an interest in many societal and behavioural issues.”

A recent report by the IfG and the Alliance for Useful Evidence, based on the views of senior officials from across Whitehall and the devolved governments, warned that the sharing of ideas and information between the governments remained “ad hoc”, with the problems exacerbated by the increased “cultural differences between the four political systems”.

Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell also warned of some of the practical barriers to knowledge-sharing earlier this year, saying the high cost of living in London — in particular, its soaring house prices — had worked to “seriously damage mobility between Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and London”.

Asked by Civil Service World whether she agreed with Lord O’Donnell’s comments, Evans said: “I think he’s right. That cuts across all professions, not just the fluidity of the civil service.” 

She added: “I think part of the issue is also where people are in terms of the age and stage of their career.

“One of the things that we’re very aware of is that many people who might be thinking ‘what’s the next stage in my career, shall I move down to London?’ — and equally, I suspect, ‘shall I move up to Scotland?’, because we advertise our senior posts externally […] — are [also] thinking ‘I’ve got two kids, they’re in the English schools system, the Scottish schools system, therefore moving would be very difficult’.

“Now actually, it’s not that difficult. People do it frequently. But I think there’s a bit of a perception about all of that.” 

Evans told CSW that she believed those views would shift as civil servants became more aware of the roles and responsibilities of their counterparts across the UK.

The Cabinet Office recently launched a new “One Civil Service” interchange scheme, in a bid to give officials in UK departments, as well as those in the Scottish and Welsh governments, a greater opportunity to experience life working for another administration. 

The programme involves more traditional one-to-two year postings, as well as new opportunities for short-term job shadowing and mentoring.

Evans said: “The more we know and understand each other, and particularly the more people know about how life looks in Scotland, the more likely we are to be able to encourage people to think about that as an option for their career. We do encourage people to have work shadowing and get more of an understanding of what it is, and how we do business in Scotland.” 

But she added: “London will always be an employment magnet, that is an issue, and indeed Edinburgh is in Scotland — that is an issue too.”

During her IfG address, Evans also touched on some of the misconceptions she had faced from Whitehall’s top civil servants at the regular Wednesday morning meetings of permanent secretaries. 

“I don’t doubt for a moment the calibre and commitment of my colleagues, and actually they have been incredibly nice and very warm in their welcome to me,” she said. 

“But I have spotted the odd opportunity to increase mutual understanding and strengthen how we might work together from the start. “I sat down at my first meeting with one colleague — who is an absolute delight — and was asked, ‘So how is the Scotland Office?’

“At another I was told, ‘I can’t tell you how infinitesimally small Scotland is on my agenda’. So perhaps, I thought, a charm offensive was needed.” 

Evans said she had invited UK-based perm secs to visit Edinburgh “to consider how our teams could work most productively together”. 

“Transport has already been up, very successfully, a couple of weeks ago, and the Home Office and the Department of Work and Pensions are going to be up again in the next month.” 

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