Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government: Exclusive Interview
As Brexit looms, the Scottish Government’s civil service chief must both deliver for her Scottish nationalist ministers, and work with civil service colleagues serving the UK’s Tory government. Matt Ross learns how she reconciles two such different briefs
Working as a permanent secretary in the UK’s parliamentary, departmental system of government is a perpetual, three-way balancing act, performed over a canyon into which careers can disappear without trace.
As ‘permanent under-secretary’, they’re chief political adviser and deputy to the secretary of state, and charged with delivering their policy agenda. But they’re also the chief executive of a large organisation, charged with championing and protecting its workforce and responsibilities in Whitehall’s endlessly shifting landscape. And they’re part of the civil service leadership team, promoting cross-departmental collaboration and reform whilst defending its culture and identity.
That need to keep the backing of ministers, staff and fellow perm secs alike can make life tricky in the top job. But no one has a harder task than the permanent secretary of the Scottish Government, Leslie Evans. All Evans’ Whitehall peers report to Conservative secretaries of state, but her political boss is Nicola Sturgeon: leader of the Scottish National Party, first minister in the country’s powerful devolved administration, and a staunch, effective opponent of the UK government.
Indeed, the 2010-15 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition may have tested the civil service’s ability to work for two parties, but tensions only broke the surface during Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum – when Evans’ predecessor Peter Housden and Treasury perm sec Sir Nicholas Macpherson were accused by opposing campaigners of taking sides in the political battle.
Across the divide
Evans is open about the need to straddle this political divide. “I have one foot in each camp. I’m chief policy adviser to the first minister; I sit in cabinet every week,” she says. “I’m not looking after a department, I’m looking after a country – and that does make it different.” Yet permanent secretaries “are all part of the UK civil service, and we have a lot of common interests – in professional and leadership and management issues, and in learning from each other.” Evans works closely with Whitehall chiefs to navigate the awkward seam between Westminster’s and Holyrood’s responsibilities: “There is a lot of business that we need to transact, because that ragged edge of devolution demands it,” she says.
Prior to Evans’ July ’15 promotion, she’d met several Whitehall chiefs in her role as a Scottish Government director general. “But when you go down there as permanent secretary, that’s different; and I made a very concentrated effort to see as many permanent secretaries as I could in the first few weeks,” she recalls. “You have to earn your place down there.”
A year after she took the job, the UK’s referendum vote to leave the EU gave Evans a new and powerful reason for building strong links with Whitehall. “I’m meeting with permanent secretaries from every department to say: ‘We’re working with you on this as a policy issue. And you need to know what Scotland’s view is, because sometimes it’s aligned [with the UK government’s] but sometimes it’s quite different’,” she explains. “The circumstances make it really important that we invest in those relationships, because [Whitehall permanent secretaries] will be preoccupied with lots of other things besides Scotland’s interests.”
Should we stay or should we go
Nicola Sturgeon is a fierce, vocal opponent of Brexit; and her electorate are behind her, with 62% of Scots backing Remain against the UK’s 48%. But after talking of a second independence referendum and embarking on a European charm offensive, the SNP leader has – characteristically – reverted to the long game, setting out what Evans calls “five acid tests of whether Scotland gets what it needs to from its relationship with Europe”. Any UK-EU Brexit settlement will, Sturgeon has said, be measured against the tests of “democracy, economic prosperity, social protection, solidarity and influence.”
Evans and the SNP’s new Brexit minister, Michael Russell, must now work to influence the UK government’s approach to Brexit. “We need to be thinking about how the devolved administrations are involved in both the decision to trigger Article 50, and the work that goes on before that,” comments Evans. “Our concern is to ensure that Scotland’s differentiated interests are represented at the negotiating table.”
Those differentiated interests include key elements of the Scottish economy, including fishing, agriculture, higher education, scientific research and Edinburgh’s huge banking sector. But it’s also about the economy as a whole, says Evans, and “the issue of ensuring that [EU] people who are already here, working and contributing, are clear about their future.”
As the talks proceed – and assuming that Article 50 is triggered – the Scottish and UK governments will also have to agree how to repatriate EU powers returning to Britain. Devolved policy areas such as agriculture would default to Holyrood, but they could get much more – particularly if Tory PM Theresa May needs a carrot to tempt the SNP into backing a Brexit settlement. Asked whether social and employment rights could end up in Scotland’s portfolio, Evans replies that it’s “entirely possible.”
“There’s a divergence of approach to some of the policies which currently lie with Europe, because clearly you’ve got different political complexions across the UK,” she adds. “Those differences will need to be taken into account.”
Powers to tax and spend
If Brexit does hand the Scots new policy responsibilities, they’ll come hard on the heels of the current wave of Whitehall devolution – promised late in the independence referendum campaign, and now coming to fruition under the 2016 Scotland Act. Most crucially, Scotland is getting the right to borrow, and powers on taxation and benefits.
Some of these changes will create new and complex “ragged edges” between UK and Scottish responsibilities – with the UK’s HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) responsible for delivering a different income tax policy in Scotland, and the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) offering a bespoke version of its emerging ‘universal credit’ (UC) benefit scheme.
On the tax side, Evans explains, “we did a lot of very close work with the Treasury and HMRC to get a fiscal framework which made a successful foundation for the subsequent legislation.” Those negotiations, she says, both forged the strong relationships essential to successful delivery, and decided “what our responsibilities are, what theirs are, and how they sit together.”
Most notably, a senior HMRC executive – presumably Jon Thompson, its chief executive and accounting officer – will come to Holyrood to account directly to the Scottish Parliament for his agency’s Scottish operations. “There’s an important set of relationships and accountabilities, which have been thought through very carefully to ensure that the policy-setting and the collection match up,” comments Evans.
On the benefits side, Evans doesn’t deny that former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s tough policies often created friction with Scottish officials and ministers. Despite that, she explains, Scottish officials have worked closely with DWP staff to develop a Scottish UC “system with a different policy, maybe a different political and policy intent, which nonetheless uses their expertise.”
Although a visit to Scotland by the DWP top team was disrupted by the sudden resignation of their secretary of state – “They all whisked off back down again quite quickly!” – she says the experience has been “a model of getting senior leadership to work hand in hand.” DWP officials, she adds, “have been doing this for years. They know the good, the bad, the risks. We’ve both had to work at the relationship, but not to call on that expertise would seem foolish.”
Building new institutions
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government itself will be collecting more taxes and delivering disability benefits – utilising its nascent tax body Revenue Scotland, and establishing a dedicated benefits agency. “Here, we’re in the very fortunate position of being able to design things from scratch,” she says.
It’s a “real privilege”, she adds, to build a brand new capability for a new set of powers. “We know this country, we know the population, and we can learn from others’ mistakes, risks and experiences to make this the best fit for our needs. Not many governments get the chance to do that!”
Estonia is one such government, having rebuilt itself after escaping the Soviet Union in 1989 – and on Monday, Scotland’s IT chief was in the Baltic state on a fact-finding trip. But the learning is two way, says Evans: along with other small nations such as Finland, Estonia is interested in Scotland’s directorate model of governance. Introduced nine years ago, this abolished departments and gave civil service leaders collective responsibility for hitting the cross-cutting, long-term, outcome-based targets set out in a ‘national performance framework’.
Under this model, says Evans, directors general don’t “feel that they own a box and work very clearly within those parameters; it’s much more fluid than that.” Charged with working together towards shared outcomes, they’re required to be “collaborative, permeable, curious, open, longer-term. They need to work hand in hand within a structure which is, we think, much less silo-bound.”
Asked the risks in the system, Evans replies that “we need to work hard at making sure that our thinking remains fresh. The second thing is to ensure that you’re collaborative outside the organisation, and that you can support your ministers to do so. And the third part is how that plays out in the political sphere. Sometimes an outcome will take 15 years to achieve, and that’s tough in the political world. So you have to give your ministers sufficient assurance that long-term outcomes are heading in the right direction: that means milestones, events, celebrations, sharing data”.
Could the directorate model work in a bigger government? She’d like to think so, but “you have to lose your habits, your behaviours, your power base to embrace this. That’s tough.” Institutions such as the UK’s Treasury and Foreign Office, she adds, would find the shift “quite hard. So I’d never say never – but it’s tough.”
On gender parity – and its fragility
There’s another key difference between Scotland’s government and the UK’s – for Holyrood’s a world leader in gender diversity. Not only are the perm sec and the leaders of the three biggest parties women, but also half the cabinet, half the directors general, and 46% of the senior civil service.
As in all fields of diversity, Evans warns, this parity’s fragile: “It only takes one or two people to leave, and you’ve got a completely different balance again. You can never have the luxury of thinking you’ve done it.” And does achieving that balance change how government operates? She’s cautious. “I’d be foolish to say that this government feels very different from others, or that the cabinet operates in a markedly different way,” she replies. “I do think there are some broad themes that I can pick out. I think women tend to be a bit more collaborative; sometimes they’re a bit more thoughtful, and less likely to jump to conclusions. But I’m sure that people would challenge me on some of that thinking.”
Either way, Evans and her team will need all the collaborative and analytical talent they can muster – along with harder-edged skills in negotiation and leverage – to manage the current wave of devolution and the emerging challenge of Brexit. “It’s important to note that some of the policy that’s developed in Brussels has never, within a working lifetime, been developed by civil servants in the UK – so there’s no expertise or history. That’s quite sobering,” she comments. “But civil servants are endlessly resourceful and tenacious. We are at our best, sometimes, in a crisis.” Brexit is a huge test: “We’ll need to call on all those skills and expertise to reflect Scotland’s interests in the final outcome.”
In helping to shape that final outcome, Sturgeon has some sturdy political tools. Under the ‘legislative consent convention’, devolved administrations vote on UK legislation affecting their remits. And whilst the convention might not be enforceable in law, forcing through a Brexit deal in the face of Scottish Parliamentary opposition could give the independence movement an unstoppable momentum. So Sturgeon’s view of the deal matters: the new PM’s predecessor may have taken Britain out of the EU, but Theresa May doesn’t want to go down in history as the one who dismantled the UK.
Keeping a foot in the EU door
Immediately after the referendum, Evans explains, Sturgeon “sought and was given a mandate from the Parliament to represent Scotland’s interests in Europe. It was cross-party, and it was unanimous. I think she feels that has given her a clear pathway to start to explore what all that means for Scotland.”
In particular, attention is focusing on what Evans calls the “models and options there might be to have a differentiated approach to Scotland”: a Brexit settlement giving Scotland a different EU status from the rest of the UK. “We’re exploring every opportunity to ensure that Scotland’s interests in Europe are maintained; the independence route is one of those, but only one,” she explains. With the UK government’s policy uncertain, all options remain open: as Evans delicately puts it, “it still feels quite a vacuum in terms of the discussion that’s taking place at that high level”.
The hard political pushing required to challenge the Tories’ Brexit policies will, of course, be a job for Sturgeon. Meanwhile, Evans will focus on retaining strong relationships with her colleagues in Whitehall – and on using those connections to exert a softer influence: “You need to know what’s going on down there, and also to have that capacity to say: ‘This doesn’t seem to be working very well for us’,” she comments. “So you need that informal network.”
At the end of the day, though Evans will always be something of an outsider in Whitehall: her job demands it. “There’s peer support there if you’re part of a departmental structure, which I can’t quite feel I’m part of – because I’m not; I’m not working for that government,” she says. “We’re part of the UK civil service, but ultimately there is a slight distinction and we’re respectful of that.
“It’s nice to have people down there who you know and can say hello to, but ultimately you’re on your own in these roles. That’s what it’s about, and you know that when you take up the role,” she concludes, suddenly thoughtful. “You really are: you’re on your own.”
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