"More and better mandarins!": lessons from my adventures as a government minister

Government is weird. And other thoughts after stepping down as Scotland's minister for local government and community empowerment.

Marco Biagi
29 May 2016
Marco Biagi.jpg

Marco Biagi - Scottish government

I once asked a former minister in jest whether The Thick Of It or Yes, Prime Minister was the truer reflection of life in government. Quick as a flash came the response – The Thick Of It, because in Yes, Prime Minister the civil servants knew what they were doing. My own ministerial experience was very different, with top class people working in every team I dealt with. But the joke brings home just how dependent I was on that apparatus, and I can imagine the howling abyss that the job would have been if my teams had been less ruthless efficiency and more Terry Coverley. A minister spends more time with their civil service private secretary than their own family, and every action or decision runs through that person.

Beyond them, you have basically no control over who you have working on your priorities or how their teams are structured. As a government minister you are not a chief executive. The civil service has one of those, the ‘Permanent Secretary’. Nor are any of you the chair of the board. That’s also the Permanent Secretary. It’s hard to find a parallel with any comparable structure anywhere. There is instead a strange relationship where you take high-level decisions that you can be publicly crucified for, and others take a whole swathe of operational decisions – that you can also be publicly crucified for. It’s a wonder our political system has any semblance of working at all.

And work it has to. In Scotland 22 men and women now bear the responsibility of implementing the agenda on which their minority government was elected through this system. Third terms are for political parties what second albums are for breakthrough artists. Difficult. By now the bold promises conceived in opposition have all been delivered or found to be impossible, while events unforeseen have arisen and the administration tested in their response. All involved are left with the question ‘what now?’.

The SNP manifesto presented to the people three weeks ago was more exciting than anyone – including the SNP campaign itself – made it out to be. Hidden away in there are complete overhauls of how our public NHS, schooling and local government systems work. A new Scottish Social Security Agency will take over from the hated DWP with an express mission of differentiation. Participatory democracy will expand in budgets with spending of almost £200m per year will be opened up to grassroots decisions. And there was a rare personal commitment by a head of government to judge her on a clear, identifiable and tangible factor – substantial and measurable improvements in Scotland’s education system over the course of a parliament.

Nicola Sturgeon was in bullish form when she put her manifesto to the new Scottish Parliament this week in her first speech as First Minister. There may be a larger and emboldened Conservative party than ever before in Holyrood, but they are there with a lower share of the vote than the SNP received in the 2003 debacle that was the party’s worst defeat of the devolution era. The conservative forces in parliament, commentariat and wider establishment can align together openly rather than continue the unlikely and unholy alliances of the past, but the political space a Scottish government needs to and will occupy remains the same.

All the individuals who have to take this forward are human beings. They have finite attention, energy, time. Indeed – that’s why they those need private secretaries. Choosing what to do with those resources is important but so is the choice of tone – whether to be bold and pushing forward or to govern with caution and the minimum of risk. Civil servants will always offer caution because that is their role – to take the hare-brained schemes politicos dream up, try to fashion them into something workable and legal and ensure both the ups and downs are presented to the minister that had previously been so enthusiastic about an idea that she was blind to its disadvantages. But in my experience they also look for leadership and respond in kind. Big, bold ideas are far more interesting to implement than softly-softly.

For those civil servants are people too, and limited in all the same human ways. And there are ever fewer of them even as the Scottish government’s powers expand. Even the best people can be stretched too far. “More and better mandarins” may sound like the sales pitch of an independent grocer off Byres Road but it is a rallying cry with which many former ministers would agree, and which matters if real changes are to happen in Scotland over the next five years – not least in the education system that carries the personal First Ministerial assurance. Would be Clement Attlees with bold programmes of reform need more than a Bevan and a Morrison in their cabinet, they need a top-class apparatus to make that reform a reality.

So while I go off now to political research and academia it is not that discipline that I would say has the desperate need to be applied to the top levels of our government, it is anthropology. Those researchers who try to understand human societies would be enthralled by the tangled webs of relationships, rituals, habits and expectations. Because the debate in politics overlooks the simple human dimension – that at the heart of everything going on there are individual people taking decisions based on their own experiences and surroundings, and trying to work together in ways and situations that are, to put it bluntly, weird. And so instead of the reason that was given to me that – and that alone – is why I would give the same answer to the original question. Definitely The Thick Of It.

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