When devolution started, the civil service was not fully let go by the UK Government. It was called the ‘Scottish Executive’, a subordinate status to the only real ‘government’ in the UK. Its officials remained part of the Home Civil Service. The UK Prime Minister had to approve the appointment of the top two tiers of officials. The arrangements were defended as a necessary way of securing high standards of public administration in the devolved system.
Twenty years later, officials are free actors compared, for instance, to the Scottish Labour Party or to BBC Scotland in their referential (even deferential) relationship to their UK bosses. This freedom is built upon the concept of exclusive loyalty to devolved ministers set out in the Civil Service Code and the many delegations on pay and recruitment given to all UK departments. Heads of the Home Civil Service work directly with the First Ministers. Controversy over Brexit legislation saw the Lord Advocate appearing before the UK Supreme Court as an equal legal player as the Scottish system pushed to the limit its assertion of rights over EU-related devolved legislation. In the managerial sense officials retain many reference points to the Home Civil Service of which they remain a part, especially on pay and pensions. Politically, they are unconflicted in loyalty and focus.
The character of the Scottish civil service has changed. It senior echelons used to be recruited through the Civil Service fast stream competition and spent a period in a central Whitehall department to gain experience for the top Scottish jobs. They were nearly all male. This was the background of the first two devolved permanent secretaries, Sir Muir Russell and Sir John Elvidge. Now, the senior team are majority female and recruited from diverse backgrounds, including the permanent secretary since 2015, Leslie Evans. She was chosen by the First Minister from among the candidates approved by civil service procedures, under controversial rules set in Whitehall to give ministers the last word on their top officials.
The advent of the SNP into office in 2007 was navigated with success – independence as its policy had to be handled but it also offered single-party government by a party not committed to the Westminster-centred world-views characteristic of the main UK parties. The SNP also brought a moderately pro-business and pro-welfare state perspective that was probably more comfortable to civil servants than that faced by their UK colleagues. Both SNP First Ministers have been powerful personalities earning a top billing on the UK stage, always a plus for devolved officials.
Two concepts are at the heart of our cross-national understanding of civil services. Are they representative bureaucracies, in the sense of corresponding to the political and social milieu of their citizenry, or some kind of alien elite, recruited and formed in ways that impose a discordant way of thinking on the system? And are they meritocratic bureaucracies, formed through an idea of competitively-validated professionalism that is independent of the wishes of political chiefs and performing its given functions in its given territory well?
On both these counts devolved civil servants have scored well.
Representativeness survived the test of the 2014 independence referendum. Meritocracy has held up; special advisers who are not politically impartial have, as in Whitehall, been integrated into a career-based workforce. Ministers have worked with and defended their officials, most notably in January 2019 when Alex Salmond won a judicial review challenge about the procedures of the investigation of complaints by staff against him after he left office.
Meritocracy implies competence, and officials are exposed on the success of individual big projects – fine when they go reasonably well, as with the 2014 Commonweath Games and the Queensferry Crossing, less so when they do not, as with new hospitals in Glasgow and Edinburgh and ferry orders for island routes. While new income tax powers have been implemented by the UK agency (HM Revenue and Customs), new social security powers are being administered directly from 2018 through a new Scottish Social Security Agency; Audit Scotland reports (most recently on 2 May 2019) have shown just how difficult the necessary tooling-up can be.
Through twenty years the Scottish civil service has earned its good luck and relatively charmed life. Further devolved powers requiring good implementation, less secure funding arrangements, and the scrutiny of system performance that comes with the passage of time suggest that next phase will be more challenging.