The workings of the civil service is hardly the sexiest topic for discussion. Increasingly, though, I find the performance of Scotland’s mandarins being raised in conversation.
This week, I was talking to a senior figure in Scotland’s cultural community who spent a fair amount of time bemoaning his dealings over the years with government officials. Laborious, unimaginative and deeply conservative, was his view. Too often a barrier rather than an avenue to getting things done.
I’ve heard much the same from business people who have had to engage with the government on economic policy. Particularly notable was a complaint that the Department for Finance and Economy ground to a halt when the dynamic Kate Forbes went on maternity leave. And experts in various fields have grumbled that civil servants too often lack depth of knowledge and expertise.
This might be a little unfair. There are many smart and committed people working in the government machine, and some genuinely first-class minds. And in fact, they share much of the frustration expressed by the critics. They point out that their role is to do their masters’ bidding, and if the masters aren’t up to it, or demand a certain style of approach, there’s not much they can do about that.
In truth, it takes a certain and perhaps an unusual kind of politician to make the most of the civil service. Michael Gove might be unpopular in certain quarters, but he has undeniably been an effective wielder of power in every ministerial job post he has held. Similarly, Forbes was able to inspire and drive her officials. It takes clear vision, achievable targets, relentless pushing and the enforcement of accountability.
One former senior civil servant told me they ended up quitting because they could no longer bear the way the SNP approached government under Nicola Sturgeon. There was too little attention paid to delivery and longer-term policy, and too much to reacting to whatever was obsessing the media. Press releases were fired out at a bewildering rate of knots, and those announcements treated as if the job was done, rather than just beginning. Another recently retired civil servant found themselves endlessly infuriated by working under a series of ministers who lacked basic governing skills and who showed no real interest in getting to grips with their portfolio.
[See also: The crisis of Scotland’s ghost children]
All of which is to add some context to a report issued this week by Our Scottish Future, Gordon Brown’s think tank. Its analysis of how the government in Scotland has been run identified that new strategies or consultations have been issued at least once a week for the past decade. This fussiness has not been matched by delivery or outcomes, which the authors describe as the “implementation gap”.
All governments can be accused of making noise and launching initiatives without necessarily seeing policy through to its conclusion. Politicians are going to politic. Nevertheless, the anecdotal evidence seems to back up the finding that the SNP has been particularly guilty of running the country by press release. A fair amount of its activity over the years has been aimed at making Scotland look different, and better, than the rest of the UK, without the reality matching the rhetoric. As I’ve written before, the really hard work of reform has been neglected in favour of splashing the cash on pet projects and the nice-to-have.
As Jim Gallagher, the chairman of Our Scottish Future, said: “If you are spending all your time writing a strategy or changing it, you are not implementing it. The government says things but it is not good at doing things. There is a tendency to announce strategies and consultations rather than solid plans for action. This is announcing, not governing.”
The SNP has been running on fumes for a while now, and after 16 years in power the party is transparently in need of a spell in opposition so that it can rethink its approach to… well, practically everything. Its smarter minds know that not enough has been achieved to justify such a long time in government. The polls show voters increasingly unconvinced that the ever-rising tax take is being wisely spent. Everyone can see that the NHS is desperately in need of an overhaul, and that nowhere near enough effort has been put into modernising the education system.
Humza Yousaf will insist that he is putting the endless, exhausting debates about whether and how independence can be achieved on the back burner in order to concentrate on voters’ priorities, but so far this has amounted to words rather than action. It’s of a piece with how Sturgeon ran her government – that if you say something, that somehow makes it true.
If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, neither can long-serving politicians unlearn bad habits. It’s too late for the SNP to change into something it hasn’t been all this time, to become an efficient conveyor belt of delivery.
The lesson, rather, is there to be learned by Scottish Labour, so that when and if it takes over at Holyrood it makes a better fist of the job. Scotland has been obsessed with talking about itself for too long. We need an era of doing.
[See also: Alex Salmond is still haunting the SNP]