Community champion

Written by Kate Shannon on 12 November 2014 in Interviews

Sarah Davidson became the Scottish Government’s Director-General of Communities in May 


On the day we meet, the Scottish Parliament building is celebrating its 10th birthday. A decade on and the imposing structure still provokes a strong reaction from those who visit it but for Davidson it has a special significance. She was director of the Holyrood Building Project Team and to mark the anniversary, she tells PSQ she and her old colleagues are getting together that night to catch up and celebrate the milestone. While this was obviously a significant time in her career, the breadth of Davidson’s experience means it was another chapter in an interesting and varied CV.

An Edinburgh native, Davidson left Scotland to study history at Oxford. “I was the cliché of the history student who enjoys it when they are doing it but are not quite sure what they’re going to do afterwards,” she laughs.

However, the one thing she was clear about was while she loved her university experience and enjoyed meeting people from different parts of the country and from different backgrounds, she knew after her degree was finished she wanted to make her career in Scotland. 

She said: “I came back to Scotland without much of an idea what I was going to do, I worked in Jenners for a while and then I applied to the civil service. At that time for graduate entry you had to apply to the civil service as a whole and then specify the particular areas you were interested in. It was a long, slow process from start to finish at that time, however, ultimately I ended up in the Scottish Office, as it then was. 

“January will be my 20th anniversary, I joined two years before the 1997 election so it was the last couple of years of the Conservative administration. I spent the first year working on private finance road schemes. If you’d told me before I joined the Scottish Office that I was going to be working on road schemes, I wouldn’t necessarily have believed this was the kind of thing that motivated me to come and work in government. I’d naturally always been more interested in the social policy side but actually, it was great because it was really tangible. It was interesting to see a part of government which delivered something you could actually see. It was also an interesting experience of seeing how government had to work with a whole range of other partners to deliver. We had external financial advisors and lawyers, as well as our own, and a project team of people who were expert road builders.”

Following this first posting, Davidson then moved to criminal justice, with a team which was changing sentencing policy. She helped work on the Crime and Punishment (Scotland) Act which was the last piece of legislation which went through parliament before the 1997 election. She added: “That was really interesting because I got to see how the House of Commons and the Lords worked. Then in 1997 when there was the change of government, I started work for Sam Galbraith first and then for Brian Wilson and Helen Liddell, as their private secretaries, which was fascinating. They were three very different people and very interesting in their own rights.”

At the end of this period, Davidson began a four year secondment to the Scottish Parliament where she established the Public Audit and Finance Committees and was director of the Holyrood Building Project Team. At this point, Davidson decided to take a career break and she went travelling around the world. When she returned, it was to work for what was then the Scottish Executive.

“Although it felt in once sense like I was coming home, I had actually never worked for the Scottish Executive before,” she said. “It had been created when I was away and it had changed a lot.”

However, she believes in some ways, it was a good thing to have had that time off, “so it had gone through its growing pains and come back as a new organisation”. Her next challenge was a year working on the implementation of the smoking ban. 

She said: “At the end of that time I moved into the Cabinet Secretariat which was effectively our equivalent of the cabinet office so it’s the custodian of the machinery of government. The first year I worked there was in the last year of the coalition administration. That was a great insight into the heart of politics and coalition politics and how it worked. After this I stayed on and I saw the first year of the SNP Government which was very different, partly by being a minority administration and partly by being a single party administration.”

After becoming Director of Communications for two years, Davidson moved to become Director for Local Government and Communities. “After having worked for four years in roles which were quite internal, that job was the complete opposite. I went right across Scotland, I was out and about. I then went on maternity leave for a year and after I returned I spent six months as acting director of HR, before I moved into this job at the end of May.”

Speaking about her current role, she said: “When this post was created, the Permanent Secretary reconfigured responsibility across the team. This was with a view to trying, within what’s now my portfolio, to have a sharper focus on issues to do with communities and place. In order to achieve that end, he brought together three chunks of the business. One of which was the one I was responsible for before I went on maternity leave; so the built environment, planning, local government, public service reform, third sector and equalities directorate. Then housing, welfare and regeneration and the directorate which looks at digital, both our own internal IT services but also thinking about digital public service transformation. 

“Part of what I’ve been doing in the past few months, because it’s the first time these things have been brought together in this way, is have a conversation, both with my own team but also with people across government and further to ask ‘what does it mean to be communities?’. My title is Director-General of Communities so we talk about my area as the communities family. This is still work we’re doing, partly because working through the post-referendum period gives us the chance to think, now we know what context we’re in, about what it means.”

Davidson believes one of the best aspects of her role is the opportunity it presents to see what is happening in communities across Scotland. 

She said: “I’m not just going out and about for the sake of being a tourist, I go and meet the people who are working on the ground, in the communities. There’s a real risk we slip into rhetoric and language which means something to people in here but not outside. I do try every week to spend at least a day somewhere seeing something I wouldn’t otherwise see, and you definitely come back with a different view of the world. 

There’s a real risk we slip into rhetoric and language which means something to people in here but not outside

“One of the challenges in this job is you have to resist the temptation to turn up somewhere, whether that’s in a community or a public sector delivery partner or with a colleague, and act as though you’re the first person to have thought about a particular issue. I’m conscious that we’re all standing on the shoulders of the people who have come before us and a helpful way to think about it is that we’re constantly refining what works. People are always learning. One of the things I think we’ve made a lot of headway with is recognising what works. So you recognise that every conversation you come to starts with, ‘tell me about what you are doing and what you learned from it’, rather than ‘we’ve come up with a brand new idea’. It is challenging because when you come across things for the first time it is easy to get excited about them but you have to temper it slightly.”

Recently the referendum has coloured much of the work of the Scottish Government and Davidson’s department is no different.

She added: “It has been an extraordinary time and what we’ve been doing as an organisation – and particularly as a senior leadership team - in the last few weeks is try and take a bit of time in the middle of everything to reflect on just how extraordinary is has been, what we’ve learned from it and what we’ve achieved through it. I am incredibly proud, not only of my own team but of the organisation as a whole and the commitment to deliver a substantial body of work in support of ministers. A lot of that was very stretching for us, some of it was in new territory for the Scottish Government but I think that stretched us but in a really good way. One of my colleagues described it as building up our policy muscles.

“In many ways what we saw over the past few weeks is what the civil service does best, which is to read the situation and quickly orientate itself to support ministers. 

“It is easy for us to forget the sheer privilege of being so close to a moment in time like that was. When you have worked for government for as long as I have you can be at risk of being a bit blasé but ever so often you think, ‘we were in the room when the results were announced, we were in the room when the First Minister resigned’. We walked through all those steps and sometimes you need to look back on that to recognise how privileged you were and we shouldn’t take any of that for granted.”

As a woman in a senior role the Scottish Government, Davidson is conscious of the need to maintain a positive gender mix. 

She said: “My whole experience of the civil service in the past 20 years is that promotion on merit is how we do things. It should always be the right person for the job but you have to ensure that the right people get the best possible chance to get to the starting gate and I think that’s what I’m interested in. 

“We’ve recently been looking at our stats and across the whole of the Scottish Government civil service, we’re about 50/50 men and women, which is really good. At director level we’ve got 43 per cent women and among the DGs we’re 50/50 which is great. I absolutely buy into the idea about the nature of decision making being better the more diverse people you’ve got around the table and that’s not just a gender point, that’s a broad culture point. 

“It is really important we find ways of ensuring that as we get smaller as an organisation, everyone is helped to realise their potential, as much they want to do. I’ve been very lucky with my experiences. The Permanent Secretary made it very clear to me before I even applied for this job that he saw no reason why it shouldn’t be done on a flexible working basis. On the one hand he didn’t have to say it but it was a really good signal that he saw it as important that whoever wanted to do the job, could do it in that way. 

“Our stats are good and that matters but we have to be careful not to be complacent. Inevitably in a large organisation you have people with good stories and others with not so good tales to tell. Right now, myself and my colleagues are trying to encourage a conversation where people feel comfortable talking about their experiences.” 



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