UK neglecting opportunities to learn from successes of government in Scotland

Sir John Elvidge, who was Scotland's most senior civil servant until last year, says that Whitehall and Westminster have more to learn from Scotland's efficient and streamlined model of government than vice versa. The thinking behind the model is set out in Northern Exposure: Lessons from the first twelve years of devolved government in Scotland, a new InsideOUT publication.

In 2007 Sir John and the new SNP minority government embarked on a radical shake-up of the Scottish government - abolishing departments, redefining the roles of the top of the civil service, reducing the number of Ministers and aligning the whole Scottish public sector around a single framework of national purpose - whose outcomes would be tracked and measured: "at the heart of [this] was the concept of government as a single organisation.. the idea of "joined up government taken to its logical conclusion".

Sir John admits that when he implemented the new model, he could not point to a similar example elsewhere in the world and he acknowledges the importance of senior politicians, including First Minister Alex Salmond in supporting the change.

Compact central government

The new structure was a response to the entrenching of silos during the preceding eight years of coalition government: "one of the consequences of coalition was to strengthen the desire of individual Ministers to maximise their own degree of autonomy and, consequently, that of their Department." The Scots realised that they were not exploiting "the potential benefits of being able to address the wide range of responsibilities within a relatively compact central government".

The new model and the new sense of unity across the public sector put the Scottish government in a good position to manage spending reductions in 2009 and 2010. Sir John highlights the benefits of this new more open way of working through the Scottish Public Leadership forum - a gathering of all the leaders of public sector organisations in Scotland set up in 2006.

He also explores in detail the nature of minority government and how coalitions are set up and wound down, emphasising the need for trust between partners and a strong understanding of the electorate's desire for stability.

Commenting on the paper, IFG Director, Lord Adonis said: "Whitehall and Westminster have not woken up to the big changes north of the border. The new Scottish model offers a real challenge to the departmental way of doing business. IFG has already looked at ways of better joining up within current structures - Sir John's paper shows that, with political consent, a different way is possible".

Devolution on the agenda

The paper is being launched today at a major devolution conference hosted by the Institute for Government and The Constitution Unit. Speakers at Inside Devolution 2011 include Institute director, Lord Adonis, Constitution Unit director, Prof Robert Hazell, and the Wales and Scotland Permanent Secretaries, Dame Gillian Morgan and Sir Peter Housden. Panellists will discuss issues such as the challenges of delivering public services within the current devolution settlement and managing relationships between the UK and devolved governments.

Lord Adonis said: "with the coalition now over a year old, and new, stronger models of government evolving in the devolved administrations, it's an ideal time to bring academics, politicians and civil servants together to talk about these emerging issues. Whilst there is often interest in international examples, the radical changes highlighted in Sir John Elvidge's paper show just how much Whitehall and Westminster can learn from focusing a little harder on what is in their own purview".