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Leslie Evans: Interview with the Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government

Leslie Evans: Interview with the Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government

On June 24th at 4.30am as the rest of the country was still to wake up to the news that it had voted to leave the European Union, Leslie Evans, the Permanent Secretary and Scotland’s top mandarin, was already in a meeting with the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, discussing next steps.

Evans and Sturgeon were joined by Ken Thomson, Director General for Operations and Strategy at the Scottish Government, one of Sturgeon’s key aides on what would now become of the Brexit negotiations, and the early morning rendezvous was just the first of many meetings that day ahead of a press call and an unprecedented weekend gathering of the Cabinet.

Such was the surprise of the Brexit vote that all semblance of a normal working day was gone. Evans and Thomson had already put in a good hour’s work at the St Andrew’s House HQ before travelling the short distance across Edinburgh to meet the First Minister for the dawn summit at her official residence of Bute House in Charlotte Square. None of them had had much sleep the previous night, the nights before or indeed, would get much in the days to come.


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It was, by any measure, a shock result and as it became clear that there was no real plan from those that had engineered it, it was left to the Scottish Government to fill what was increasingly looking like a political vacuum at Westminster.

David Cameron had already announced his intention to stand down as Prime Minister and Boris Johnson, one of the key architects of the Brexit vote, was on the news revealing his own hand as empty, just as Sturgeon walked into her own hastily convened press conference in the drawing room of Bute House.

Evans and Thomson, arguably two of the most important people in the room aside from the First Minister, were ignominiously squeezed in at the back of that drawing room, jostling for space behind the television cameras, bookcases, Scottish Government spin doctors and media late-comers. And while all eyes and ears were firmly focused on Sturgeon, Evans and Thomson were there doing what they, as seasoned civil servants, are trained to do, supporting the government of the day in the direction it was about to take.

Sturgeon told the waiting media that Scotland had voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU and she made clear that she would be exploring all avenues to ensure that the democratic will of the Scottish people was recognised. A second independence referendum was, she declared, “highly likely.”

I was watching Evans at that very moment and she didn’t flinch. Anticipating uncertainty and leading an organisation in times of ambiguity is, she later tells me, part of the job.

“Actually, I think the civil service is sometimes at its best when it’s responding to either a crisis or something that is really unforeseen,” she says.

Meanwhile, Evans’s family flew off to Spain on a long planned for holiday without her.

“Whenever I’m on holiday I speak to the office every day but in this instance, I just felt I would have been slightly further afield than I would have felt comfortable with, so I sent my son and husband off and decided that I would join them when and if it was right for me to go,” says Evans.

Such was the anxiety among the civil service staff, some of whom were EU nationals and fundamentally concerned about their immigration status following the vote, that instead of sunning herself in Spain, Evans held up to eight or nine mass meetings of Scottish Government civil servants – seeing upwards of 1,000 staff – over the course of the next few days.

“People wanted to be able to see someone near or at top of the organisation about their feelings around the vote because there was a great deal of surprise. There was the inevitable questioning by some people who work for our organisation about what happens now, what does it mean for Scotland, is our position different, does it mean anything different to us…”

And in a climate of great anxiety, what certainties could she offer.

“We’ve got options that are being pursued at the moment,” she says. “The First Minister was and is very clear about a range of options that she wants to be developed and examined. The Standing Council on Europe that has already been established is doing some great work on that.

“I think one of those options, which the First Minister says is highly likely, is another referendum and clearly having gone through one, and having the legislation for one, allows you to look closely at what might be required and what might be needed to pull that back into parliament and back into the legislative framework and to look at the timing of all of that. It [a second referendum] is part of a number of options.

“Having done it before, I think it’s as much about how the organisation responds to that challenge, should it happen. What was it in the organisation that we learned from that previous process that we would want to reignite, alter, refresh or change in the way that the organisation was led, in the processes that we used, in the communication internally and externally, how we handled ourselves, what narrative we used and how we worked with our stakeholders, and although we’ve done it before, we would have to look at it all again because a) the circumstances are distinct, they’re never the same and b) the timing of this is still up for grabs, but as and when and if it comes into play, we will need to be ready to deploy what we learned from that process the first time around.”

I ask Evans if the independence referendum had been a bruising affair for civil servants given that their impartiality was constantly being questioned. Her predecessor, Sir Peter Housden, found himself the subject of various newspaper headlines with critics accusing him of working against the UK and for independence.

“I think for some people it was very bruising. Peter, in particular, being on the front page of various newspapers on a regular basis, when that’s not the civil service comfort zone. We’re not designed to be in that kind of limelight but he dealt with it exceptionally well. I think the other thing is that the very nature of the civil service is that civil servants don’t want to see that kind of thing going on either, so I think he got a lot of support.

"People in here generally felt that treatment of him quite hard to take. I think the thing that was important about it, however, and one of the reasons he managed it so well, is that we, as civil servants, were absolutely clear what our role was and we work really hard as a senior leadership team, myself included, to communicate that sense of clarity about our values and the clarity about our role in relation to serving the government of the day.

“We got great support for that from Bob Kerslake (then head of the UK civil service) as well and interestingly, I was sharing my experience of the independence referendum having been part of the Scottish Government with my perm sec colleagues down south just before this EU referendum and that was one of the things I was talking about, about being very clear about our role, because it was the talk of the watercooler and so what we wanted to do was to ensure everybody who worked for the Scottish Government was quite clear and felt confident about the role each of them was playing. There was no room for ambiguity there and so it was vitally important having very clear statements about that from Sir Bob, from Peter and from ourselves as senior managers. It was also important being clear with the politicians that they understood our role.

“I will tell you a story because it’s mildly amusing. Not long ago, there was someone up from Whitehall just before the EU referendum and they were talking to a team of people in one of our offices and saying, ‘of course, you have to realise that actually, our values allow us to serve the government of the day…’ and my staff were nodding politely in that civil service way but obviously thinking, ‘yeah, tell us about it’.

“There were no issues about it but we had to keep going back and reiterating our role as civil servants and also, most importantly, allow staff to ask any questions and ask of their managers, are you sure, is this right or I’m hearing this or somebody accused me of that…that openness and inclusive approach to listening to the organisation is really important. We learned a lot from then [the 2014 independence referendum].

“I think the experience made people think quite differently and I think it gave them an exposure to the raw politics and while that interface between civil service and raw politics is always there, it was particularly acute. I think that was perhaps unique but I don’t think it changed the civil service but it gave those working here an experience that few other civil servants had had for some time.”

I asked her how she felt when Sir Nicholas Macpherson, who at the time was the UK Treasury’s most senior civil servant, took the unprecedented step of publishing his advice to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, against entering into a currency union with Edinburgh. His intervention was widely seen as crucial to the independence debate because it put an end to the belief that an independent Scotland could maintain sterling as its currency.

“I think people find this quite difficult to understand, and I absolutely understand why the public find this peculiar of devolution, but Nick Macpherson was serving the policy of his government and we were serving, and are serving, the policy direction of our government. So there will always be an emphasis - the evidence will not be different - but the emphasis and how that is presented can be. That’s how devolution works and it’s legitimate.

“I do think civil servants and senior civil servants, in particular, always have to be thoughtful about how they position themselves in those exposed circumstances.”

So was he wrong to have published?

“I was surprised to see it published.”

Evans and I sit down almost exactly a year to the day that she was appointed Permanent Secretary following in the footsteps of Sir Peter Housden who she had previously supported in the top tier of Scotland’s civil service in her role as Director General for Education and Lifelong Learning.

On her first day as Permanent Secretary, she tweeted that it was “a real privilege” to be in the job and she says now that she still feels like that every day.

“It’s been testing, it’s been exhilarating, it’s been satisfying and it’s been challenging,” she says as she marks her first anniversary, adding, “that applies to the whole organisation, not just to me.

“The great thing about coming into this role was that I knew enough about this organisation to know its great strengths so people didn’t have to prove to me what I already knew. People here feel passionate and I know that not many people think about civil servants and passion in the same sentence but people here are passionate about what they do, they’re passionate about Scotland and they are passionate about making Scotland a better place to live so what a privilege it is for me to come and harness that good will, that passion and that excitement but it is also an important time for Scotland so what a great time to pick up the reins.”

Evans is the first woman to hold the top civil service role in Scotland and one of just 30 female permanent secretaries in the history of the UK civil service.

Speaking at the Women into Leadership Scotland conference last year, she described vividly, but with some humour, a few experiences from her early career that illustrated the struggles for women in senior roles in the public sector.

In the late 1980s, being interviewed for a local government job by the elected members of that local authority, she was asked what her husband thought of her applying for the post. She didn’t get the job, despite strong experience.

A few years later when she was due to take maternity leave, the package was six weeks at full pay and six weeks at half pay, but the maternity leave had to start two months before the baby was due, leaving only a month afterwards, at most, to spend with the new baby even if it was born on the due date. Her son wasn’t.

And in 2000, when she joined the civil service, she was asked to try to improve the relationship between civil servants in her department and their female minister by talking to her about lipsticks.

“The 1980s and much of the 90s provided me with plenty of examples and experiences where I encountered barriers and assumptions which were just as powerful in their impact on me and my ambition,” she said, “and I certainly wasn’t alone.”

In any case, she refused to take her maternity leave at seven months and refused to talk to the government minister about make-up.

Evans describes herself as an “incurable optimist” and says things are getting better, with a female First Minister, a gender-balanced Cabinet and executive team and 40 per cent of senior civil servants now female. I ask her what difference it makes.

“I think I’m a different leader as a woman than if I were a man,” she says carefully. “Not necessarily better, just different. I don’t know whether the FM thinks she’s different in her approach but she certainly has an agenda which is formed by being a woman. I’m not sure that the Cabinet is noticeably different because of the gender balance but I do notice more, in those circumstances – not just in Cabinet because I won’t speak about what happens there – but in circumstances when you have a balance and a diversity, not just of gender but of background and experience, that you do get a different conversation and culture going on. 

“I do think women tend to be, not in the context of the Cabinet necessarily, but they tend to be a bit more open and sometimes they tend to be less likely to make assumptions.”

Born in Northern Ireland and brought up in England, Evans moved to Scotland in 1985. Before joining the civil service, she worked in local government for 20 years, for City of Edinburgh Council, Stirling Council, the London Borough of Greenwich and Sheffield City Council. She served as head of arts and entertainment and assistant director of recreation in Edinburgh, with responsibility for the capital’s theatres.

As well as being the first female Permanent Secretary in Scotland, she had also not followed the traditional senior civil service route of public school and then Oxbridge, having gone to a comprehensive school, High Storrs School in Sheffield, and studied music at the red brick University of Liverpool.

And rather than having worked her way up through the civil service, she joined after devolution in 2000, when senior civil service posts were first opened up to those from outside.

She says, she is driven by the prospect of making a difference.

“I come from a long line of quite bolshie women, I have to say…and they’re all fabulous. My mother in particular came from a really poverty-stricken background…had no boots to wear to school, left at 12 and so on and she was in the army during the war and got married quite late. I’m the youngest of three and with two older brothers, I had to fight for my place a bit and I think my drive is to do with a combination of that and seeing my mother and my grandmother really fight for what they felt entitled to.

“My grandmother was present when the suffragette threw herself under the king’s horses at Epsom. Although, to be fair, she was an inveterate gambler so although it was a very profound moment for her, she was also very disappointed that the race was abandoned...

“I do come from a line of women who were very clear about what they want to do and why they wanted to do it and I think my upbringing really focused me on the equality or rather, inequality of opportunity. I was the first generation to go to university although my father eventually went and my mother did as well but they had both left full-time education at 12 and 14. And as children, my brothers and I were expected to take every opportunity going and it didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl in that respect. That was unusual for that period because I was born in the 50s but my mother also went out to work when I was very young so I always accepted the fact that as a woman, you went out to work.

“I’ve always worked in areas where I’ve tried to make a difference. I was in Sheffield, working in the local council in the time that David Blunkett was there and during the time of the miners’ strike. It was a really interesting time and I was at university at the time when Margaret Thatcher was in power and there were some very interesting political events in that era. I came here knowing nobody and I found it a fascinating place which had this incredible history and yet was still thinking about its future.

“My role in Scotland as perm sec is about representing Scotland as much as it is about representing government and that’s unique in the perm sec field and as you’ve said, you’re never very far away from either front line or real life so I think if you are in this job, you have to be prepared to be up front with some of the toughest things that are going on – you can’t just take refuge in your lovely office or in your ivory tower and not know that something big is going on in Aberdeen or that there are real difficulties in families struggling in Glasgow. You need to be aware of all of that to do the job properly, so I don’t think it suits everybody.

 “There’s an accountability that is unique to this job. I mean, people can come up to you, and they do, and demand to know what are you doing about this or ask why your people are doing that. I enjoy that, I make time in my diary to be out seeing what I call real people in the real world. Seeing projects, things that we’re funding, things that are working, often things that perhaps aren’t working. Listening to what it feels like to live in Scotland and that’s the good and the tough. The size of the public sector in Scotland means you can get the Scottish leaders around a table and that’s a real asset.

“I’ve never planned my career. I know people always say this, but I never had a vision of where I am heading or a Machiavellian way of plotting it all out and so on. I didn’t plan coming here 15 years ago but I suppose when I thought about it, I was very drawn to the idea of Scotland being on a journey. I don’t mean that politically, I mean it in terms of post devolution and it finding its way.

“I think Scotland has some extraordinary opportunities and also challenges and some really deep-rooted social issues and an economy which, at the moment, we’re wanting to ensure we strengthen and develop, to make it sustainable and I suppose my drawing to this post was about the role that the civil service can play in Scotland, which is distinct to the one that my counterparts in Whitehall can play, and that is that it can really make a difference to people’s lives. I’ve worked in the public sector all my career and it felt to me like this would be one of the most exciting jobs at one of the most exciting times for Scotland and so it is proving to be.” 

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