Devolved administrations

Until devolution in 1999, civil servants in all parts of the UK reported to UK Government ministers. Today, around one in ten civil servants is accountable to ministers in the three devolved administrations. Northern Ireland has the largest civil service, partly because it runs its own social security system. The Scottish and Welsh administrations expanded substantially after 1999, to meet the demands of the new era of devolution. But most civil servants employed in Scotland and Wales are still part of UK Government departments. Since 2010, all three administrations have faced budget pressures but Scotland now has a larger devolved workforce than at the start of austerity.Numbers are down slightly in Wales and substantially in Northern Ireland.

Devolved ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are supported by a civil service workforce of several thousand people in each nation. These workforces were inherited from the UK Government in 1999, but have since had to expand and evolve to serve the needs of ministers that have policy priorities that are different to those set in Westminster, and as further functions have been devolved.

The structure of the civil service is different in each nation. In Scotland and Wales, the devolved administrations operate as a single organisation, which is designed to encourage cross-government working, while Northern Ireland has a more rigid departmental structure similar to Whitehall. The Welsh Government has a smaller and more senior workforce than the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive – which has the largest and most junior workforce. This reflects differences in what is devolved in each nation, with Wales responsible for fewer large operational functions, which have a greater proportion of junior staff.

One in ten UK civil servants works for a devolved administration

In 1999, thousands of civil servants who had previously been accountable to UK Government ministers began working for newly formed administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales inherited their workforces from the old Scottish and Welsh Offices, which had employed 3,700 and 2,000 civil servants respectively in 1999.[1] Around 98% of these civil servants transferred to the new Scottish and Welsh administrations, along with almost 10,000 civil servants working for agencies in Scotland and around 250 in Wales.* However, while officials in the Scottish and Welsh Governments are now accountable to different political administrations, they remain formally part of the same organisation as those working for the UK Government (known together as the ‘home civil service’) and the management of the civil service remains a reserved matter, overseen by the UK Government. The Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), meanwhile, is a separate organisation that has existed in some form for almost a century. From 1972 until the Northern Ireland Executive was established in 1999, it was accountable to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.** Since then, when there is a functioning executive, officials have reported to ministers in Stormont.

Size of the civil service workforce in the devolved administrations (FTE), December 2018At the end of 2018, the Northern Ireland Civil Service employed around 21,300 people. This workforce is divided into nine main departments, with each led by a Cabinet minister (when there is a power-sharing devolved government) and a Permanent Secretary. The Scottish and Welsh Governments, meanwhile, operate as a single organisation, and the portfolios of Cabinet ministers do not directly match the structure of the civil service workforce. At the end of 2018, the Scottish Government employed 6,170 civil servants directly and a further 11,000 through its agencies, while the Welsh Government employed 5,100 civil servants directly and a further 170 through its agencies. In both cases, the overall workforce has grown substantially since devolution in 1999. This is partly because the devolved administrations found themselves needing workforces with different skills from the ones they inherited. Ieuan Wyn Jones, former Deputy First Minister of Wales, explains that “in the days of the old Welsh Office, you didn’t need policy staff… policy was Westminster policy and they just delivered it in Wales”.[2] After 1999, the Welsh Government had to expand its policy capacity so that it could develop policy distinct from that designed in Westminster for England. It is also because additional civil service capacity has been needed as further powers have been transferred from Westminster since 1999, including the capacity to make primary legislation in Wales, and powers over transport and taxation in both Scotland and Wales. In addition, restructures also mean that staff who previously worked for non-civil service agencies now work for the devolved administrations.***

Overall, around 10% of the UK’s 430,000 civil servants work for a devolved administration. The UK Government also employs considerable numbers of civil servants in the devolved nations. Around 80% of the civil servants employed in Wales work for UK Government departments, with the Department for Transport and the Department for Work and Pensions employing more people in Wales than the Welsh Government. In Scotland, 60% of civil servants work for the UK Government, although the Scottish Government is a larger employer than any single UK department. In Northern Ireland, only about 15% of civil servants are employed by UK Government departments.[3]

The relative size of the devolved civil service in each nation partly reflects the different responsibilities of each devolved administration. The Northern Ireland Executive controls social security in the region, and the Department for Communities – which administers the system – employs around 6,800 people. Across Great Britain, welfare is largely the responsibility of the Department for Work and Pensions, which employs around 9,500 people in Scotland and 5,400 people in Wales. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland are also responsible for justice, with prison and court staff counted as part of the civil service workforce. In Scotland, 4,500 people work for the prison service and 1,700 for the courts system, while there are 1,200 prison-grade staff in Northern Ireland. In Wales, however, justice is not devolved so the 3,300 Wales-based civil servants working for either HM Prisons and Probation Service or HM Courts and Tribunals Service are not part of the Welsh Government’s workforce.

* Figures are based on the full-time equivalent workforce. See Cabinet Office, ‘Civil Service Statistics 2004’, last updated 13 March 2009, table C, resources/stats-archive/2004/2004-Annual-Report.aspx

** The Northern Ireland Civil Service was accountable to the Stormont Government from 1921 to 1972. Following the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973, a power-sharing government briefly held office in 1974 before collapsing.

*** For example, the Welsh Development Agency was not included in the Cabinet Office’s civil service workforce statistics (see Cabinet Office, ‘Civil Service Statistics 2004’, last updated 13 March 2009, table C, This agency was merged into the Welsh Government in 2006.


Scotland and Wales have reformed the structures of their governments

In Scotland in 2007, the incoming Scottish National Party (SNP) Government reformed the structure of the civil service in Scotland. The existing departmental structure, which the devolved Scottish Government had inherited from the Scottish Office in 1999, was replaced by a new, more flexible structure designed to focus the activity of government on collective rather than departmental objectives.

The Scottish civil service is now structured around 39 directorates, which are the core building blocks of the Scottish Government. Some of these directorates cover quite broad areas, such as the Justice Directorate, which has responsibilities comparable to those of the Ministry of Justice in Whitehall. Others have a narrower focus, for example there are nine directorates relating to health in some way, including the Health and Social Care Integration Directorate and the Population Health Directorate.

Each directorate is overseen by one of six directors general, who each have a specific area of responsibility (for example, the economy or health and social care). These directors general are comparable in seniority to the previous heads of departments in Scotland, and are collectively responsible for delivering the Scottish Government’s strategic objectives: making Scotland “wealthier and fairer, healthier, safer and stronger, smarter and greener”.[4]

Structure of directorates and Cabinet posts in the Scottish Government, April 2019

The reorganisation of the civil service in Scotland has also changed the relationship between ministers and the civil service. Cabinet ministers no longer lead a government department, and ministerial portfolios no longer directly mirror the organisation of the civil service. Instead, most Cabinet ministers have portfolios spanning several different directorates, sometimes intersecting with several directors general. For example, the Cabinet Minister for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs is the lead Cabinet minister for two directorates. One of these – the Culture, Tourism and Major Events Directorate – is overseen by the Director General for Economy, while the other – the External Affairs Directorate – is overseen by the Director General for Constitution and External Affairs.

Sir John Elvidge, the Scottish Government’s Permanent Secretary at the time, has said that the purpose of the reforms was to “create a stronger sense of a single coherent organisation”,[5] better able to tackle cross-cutting issues. He has also noted that the “relatively compact governing structure”[6] of the devolved administration in Scotland offered an opportunity to do things differently. The restructure was accompanied by a single statement of purpose for the Government and a number of measurable national outcomes, and Elvidge has commented that by 2011 the model had “proved strong enough to produce… demonstrable progress on the majority of outcomes”.[7]

Former SNP Cabinet minister Shona Robison has also praised the reforms, saying that “significant progress has been made in trying to get government out of its silos”.[8] However, her former colleague Alex Neil has expressed doubts about whether the model had changed the way government operated, at least from his perspective as Health Minister, recalling that: “Quite frankly, I didn’t have time to worry about what the rest of the Government was doing, I was too focused on what the health targets  were.”[9] Former Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill also told us that “a lot of these management-speak things just drifted over my head” but accepted that the structural reforms might be more helpful for civil servants themselves.[10]

Cabinet ministers and 'groups within the Welsh Government (indicative), April 2018

The structure of the Welsh Government is broadly similar to that of the Scottish Government. There are no formal departmental divisions and the Welsh Government instead operates as a single organisation. As former First Minister Carwyn Jones told the Institute for Government, “we’re in effect almost a one-department government, because most of the civil servants are all in one building”.[11] Within this there are five ‘groups’, led by four directors general and the Permanent Secretary of the Welsh Government. These groups are further sub-divided into individual directorates.[12]

The Welsh Government has also abolished several of the public bodies it inherited.  For example, in 2006, the Welsh Development Agency, the Wales Tourist Board and Education and Learning Wales (which was responsible for post-16 education) were absorbed into the Welsh Government. Andrew Davies, the Labour minister who oversaw the abolition of the Welsh Development Agency, has said that working closely with these agencies in government led him to the conclusion that they were “just a big bloated bureaucracy… pursuing strategies which were out of date”, adding that a “big argument for devolution in the [1997] referendum was addressing the democratic deficit” in Wales.[13]

Devolved government in Northern Ireland is structured around power-sharing between parties

The structure of government in Northern Ireland is based on the more traditional departmental model. During periods when there is a functioning executive in Stormont, these departments are led by Cabinet ministers, with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister sharing the Executive Office.

Cabinet posts in the Northern Ireland Executive by party, 1999 to 2017

However, the departmental system in Northern Ireland has several distinct features compared with Whitehall. First, the number of departments in Northern Ireland is enshrined in legislation. In December 2014, when the political parties in Northern Ireland and the UK Government agreed to reduce the number of departments in Northern Ireland from 12 to 9, legislation had to be passed in the Northern Ireland Assembly to implement this. In contrast, when the UK Prime Minister chooses to restructure departments, primary legislation is not needed.[14]

Second, the allocation of Cabinet posts in Northern Ireland is determined by the power-sharing arrangements outlined in the Good Friday Agreement.[15] The offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (which are equal in stature) are reserved for the largest unionist and nationalist parties, and most of the remaining Cabinet posts are allocated to parties based on the share of seats they have in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The exception is the post of Justice Minister, where the appointment is based on a cross-community vote. This means that a majority of both unionist and nationalist members in the Northern Ireland Assembly, or 60% of all members and 40% of both unionist and nationalist members, must support the appointment. Since the post was created in 2010, there have been two occupants: David Ford, then leader of the non-sectarian Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, and Claire Sugden, an independent liberal unionist.[16]

During periods of direct rule, for instance between 2002 and 2007 when UK ministers took direct responsibility for government in Northern Ireland, civil servants working for Northern Ireland departments have been accountable to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (a member of the UK Government). However, since the most recent collapse in power-sharing in January 2017, the UK Government has been reluctant to implement direct rule. This means that the Northern Ireland Civil Service currently operates without direct political oversight.

In late 2018, the UK Government legislated to grant Northern Ireland officials greater flexibility, with the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 stating that the ”absence of Northern Ireland Ministers does not prevent a senior officer of a Northern Ireland department from exercising a function of the department” if the officer believes this to be in the public interest.[17] The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland also provided further guidance on how civil servants should exercise their functions, stating that “major policy decisions” and “major public expenditure commitments” should be avoided, and where possible “the priorities and commitments of the former Executive and Minister(s) should be followed”.[18]

Scotland’s civil service has grown since 2010, but the other administrations have shrunk

Percentage change in civil service staff numbers (FTE) for the UK and devolved governmentsThe overall size of the devolved administrations’ budgets is largely determined by the UK Treasury’s decisions. This means that when the UK Government sought to reduce public spending after the 2010 Spending Review, budgets were cut throughout the UK. The devolved administrations did not have to make savings in the same areas as the UK Government, which chose to reduce the number of civil servants it employed. Initially, however, the devolved administrations also chose to reduce the size of their workforce.

From September 2010 up to December 2011, staff reductions for the Scottish, Welsh and UK Governments were roughly comparable. The Scottish Government and its agencies’ workforce fell by 6% (or 950 people), while staff numbers for the Welsh and UK Governments fell by 9% (or 510 and 41,700 people respectively). In Northern Ireland, staff reductions were initially more modest. In fact, the total size of the workforce increased by 1,700 at the end of 2011, when the devolution of justice policy resulted in prison-grade staff being reclassified as part of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. If the effect of this reclassification is discounted, the size of the workforce fell by 2.4% (or 680 people) between March 2011 and June 2012.

Since then, staff numbers have changed in different ways for each government. The UK Government’s workforce continued to fall until June 2016, by which point it was 19% smaller than in 2010. Numbers have risen in every quarter since then, largely because of extra recruitment to deal with Brexit; yet this has replaced only around a quarter of the job cuts made since 2010. The Scottish Government’s workforce began growing much earlier, in March 2013, and by the end of 2018 staff numbers were 9% higher than in 2010.* The Welsh Government also began to reverse its staff cuts in March 2012, and by September 2014 the workforce was almost the same size as it had been in 2010. But since then, the Welsh civil service has experienced another round of reductions and the workforce is now around 7% smaller than it was in 2010.

While staff cuts were slower to take place in Northern Ireland, the size of the civil service fell sharply between 2014 and 2016, and the workforce is now 15% smaller than it was in 2011. This reduction coincided with the Stormont House Agreement in 2014, where – under pressure from the UK Government to reduce spending – the major parties in Northern Ireland committed to “improve the efficiency of the civil service and wider public sector and reduce administrative costs”.[19]

* We have excluded the effect of transfers and reclassifications from our analysis of changes to staff numbers in the devolved administrations (except for the transfer of prison-grade staff in Northern Ireland in late 2011, which is shown in Figure 3.5). The largest of these transfers was when 1,100 staff working for Historic Scotland stopped being counted within the civil service in quarter 4 of 2015.


Wales’s civil service is more senior

Percentage of civil servants at each grade in the UK and devolved civil service, 2018 (headcount)

The civil service staff cuts since 2010 have taken place mostly at junior grades. The Scottish and Welsh Governments, as well as the UK Government, now have a smaller percentage of their staff in junior grades than they did in 2010. While grades in the Northern Ireland Civil Service are different from those in the rest of the UK, so not directly comparable, the percentage of staff employed at the most junior Northern Ireland grades has also fallen since 2011.

Overall, the Welsh Government employs the highest percentage of its civil servants in senior grades. Senior civil servants and civil servants just below them, at grade 6 or 7, made up 21% of the Welsh Government’s workforce in 2018, compared with 14% for the Scottish Government, 12% for the UK Government and 7% for similar grades in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Meanwhile, 37% of civil servants working for UK Government departments were at the most junior administrative grades (administrative assistants and administrative officers), compared with 36% in Northern Ireland, 31% in Scotland and 15% in Wales.

This difference is largely because fewer large operational functions are devolved in Wales compared with Scotland and Northern Ireland. The five largest UK Government departments, with the most staff at junior grades, operate across the UK (the Ministry of Defence and HM Revenue and Customs), Great Britain (the Department for Work and Pensions) or England and Wales (the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office). The lack of large operational functions in the Welsh Government means that relatively senior staff, who provide policy support for ministers, make up a larger proportion of the workforce. The big services that are devolved to Wales – schools, the NHS and local government – are staffed mainly by non-civil servants.

The devolved governments spend around £1bn a year on running costs

Government spending in the UK can be divided into programme costs – which cover spending on public services – and administration costs – which cover the running costs of central government. Administration costs give an indication of how much the bureaucracy of government costs.

Devolved administration spending on 'administration' or similar functions, 2017/18

The latest Scottish Government annual report showed that £185m was spent on administration in 2017/18. The Welsh Government, meanwhile, spent £315m on ‘central services and administration’ in the same year, while the Northern Ireland Executive spent £557m on administration. This compares to a total of £9.4bn that the UK Government spent on administration. However, caution should be taken when comparing these figures. First, the Welsh Government offers no breakdown between ‘central services’ and ‘administration’ in its accounts for 2017/18. This suggests that the £315m it spent covers a wider range of functions than, for example, the £185m the Scottish Government spent on administration. In addition, while we could expect the four Governments of the UK to count some similar functions within ‘administration’ (for example, the cost of ministers’ private offices), it is also possible that there are differences in how they distinguish between programme and administration spending. Nonetheless, these figures offer a broad indication of how much devolved governments spend on their own running costs as opposed to how much they spend on delivering policies and public services.

Unlike for the devolved parliaments and assemblies, the running costs of the devolved administrations were not entirely new costs in 1999. This is because the devolved administrations inherited civil service workforces that had previously reported to the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But the running costs will have increased somewhat since then, as the devolved administrations increased their capacity to meet the demands placed on them in a new era. The devolved governments had to expand their administrative capacity to develop distinctive policy rather than simply replicating policy designed in Westminster, which was the common approach prior to 1999. Former First Minister of Wales Carwyn Jones has described how, eventually, the Welsh Government became a more attractive option for ambitious (and likely higher paid) civil servants.[20]

In addition, as further powers have been transferred since 1999, the devolved administrations have had to build further capacity to effectively manage the new functions – for instance when railways policy was devolved to Wales in 2006, and when the Scottish Government took on taxation and social security powers in 2012 and 2016.[21] These changes have meant that over the period since 1999 all three devolved governments have gained greater control of both public spending and taxation in their territories, which we examine in greater depth in Chapter 4.