Public service reform and innovation: Permanent Secretary speech

Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans' speech at the Public Services Conference in Dublin.

I am delighted to join you today, both to hear about tremendous examples of reform here in Ireland, and to share my reflections of our journey of transformation in Scotland.

As Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government I have been leading a programme of organisational change to make us a more open, capable and responsive government. 

Why? Well to use the term coined by the US military 30 years ago, now is a 'VUCA' point in Scotland’s history - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Constitutional change has dominated the recent and current Scottish context. Our Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, and has been led for most of its life by coalition and minority administrations. We’ve seen a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, with a turnout of 84.6% and an unprecedented level of engagement by young people and by people in socio economic class D/E, 81% of whom turned out to vote. The final result was a relatively narrow 55:45 split against independence. 

We’ve seen changes at Westminster. Not least the referendum on exiting the EU which played out very differently in Scotland to many parts of England, in particular. Uncertainty remains with Brexit Day just  a month away.

But Scotland shares other VUCA conditions with Ireland and other countries. We’ve been through the economic crisis of 2008 and a slow and fragile recovery. And there are geopolitical shifts, demographic and intergenerational change, shifting expectations of public services from citizens (including young people), climate change, AI and the pace of technological and scientific development.

Alongside these changes, there are continuing and deeply entrenched economic and social inequalities that restrict the life chances of too many of Scotland’s people. It is worth remembering that for some people, and for some of our communities, life has always been 'VUCA'.

In the face of these challenges, it is more important than ever that we, and our public services, strive for improvement. The SG response can be expressed through a single, acid test. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, often asks our citizens - what kind of country do we want to be? The answer is rooted in the day and daily experience of people, in their lived experience but also their aspirations, those of their children and of their communities. In other words, in outcomes – the wellbeing and life chances enjoyed by Scotland’s citizens, supported by a successful economy and healthy wider environment. And that means crafting, co-producing and supporting implementation of policy which reflects real people’s lives with all the complexities, messiness, risk and interdependency that we know real life entails.

Our focus on outcomes is built on two landmark developments for Scotland’s public services.

The first is a National Performance Framework, which embodies the importance of outcomes, and represents  the Scottish Government’s ambitions and aspirations for the country. 

Back in 2007 a new minority SNP administration was elected. Keen to establish strong, competent government, they introduced Scotland’s first National Performance Framework as a way to focus on long-term, joined up outcomes.  This Framework set out a vision of national wellbeing for Scotland. It also enabled us to chart progress towards this vision through a range of social, environmental and economic indicators. 

The second development is the work of an independent commission, set up to advise on the future of Scotland’s public services, chaired by the late Campbell Christie. Their report described the prize for reform as a:

  • “sustainable, person-centred system, achieving outcomes for every citizen and every community”

And they concluded that making this happen would require:

  • “nothing less than a thorough transformation of our public services”

That noble goal - that challenge - struck a chord with politicians, public sector leaders and staff. Even now, 8 years on, the term 'Christie' is part of our common parlance in Scotland.

This thorough transformation affects the why – what purpose public services should strive to achieve through their interventions. It affects the what – the actions public services take to meet this purpose. And it also shapes the how  - how public services organise themselves to make this happen. 

Firstly let’s look at the why. You will be familiar with this dilemma. How to ensure a shift  from what public services provide to  focus on what citizens and communities need. In other words, turning our gaze from the producer to the client. 

In Scotland, the National Performance Framework is our guiding star in this endeavour. We recently refreshed the Framework to ensure it continues to embody and emphasise what people in Scotland need and aspire to.

Importantly, this involved our partners across local government and the Third Sector. This partnership approach means that we now have a National Performance Framework with national and local Governments as co-signatories and cross party support in our Parliament. And because the NPF became enshrined in law in 2015, it now represents ‘the way we do Government’ in Scotland, whoever comes into power. The Framework therefore reflects a vision for Scotland that we all want to see, showcasing a set of National Outcomes for the whole of Scotland, not just for one political party or for the Government, nor for public services alone.

As an illustration - we now have a National Outcome that expects our children and young people to grow up not only with strong and equal opportunities, but feeling loved, safe and respected. Now Government can do many things at its own hand  - but ensuring that young people 'feel loved' is not one of them. It demands a contribution from wider society to make it a reality.

The refreshed Framework also reflects SG’s commitment to Human Rights and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The deadline of 2030 for fulfilling these Goals helps inject urgency into what we are doing. 

With the National Performance Framework at its heart, Scotland has what the OECD has described as 'the most developed outcomes-based approach adopted by government in the world'.

But how do we make a reality of our Framework? People’s needs are not met one service at a time -  it’s not enough simply to urge our public services to get better at what they’ve traditionally done. 

We know the most acute levels of deprivation tend to be highly localised, clustered tightly within small communities and households. And we’ve learned that tackling these multiple problems in isolation addresses neither the immediate effects of the negative outcomes people experience, nor their root causes.

Before our public services can deliver, they need to understand people’s needs, their aspirations and what makes all our lives complex and challenging. The Scottish approach to reform is therefore not just about providing the answers. It’s about appreciating the questions we need to pose in order to help communities – and by taking time to listen to people, earn their trust and really understand their needs and hopes. 

As an example, the Scottish Government is now responsible for several aspects of social security. SG Ministers are committed to introducing a distinctly Scottish approach, weaving a culture of dignity and respect into the fabric of Social Security Scotland. 

We have formed Experience Panels to inform major decisions on how our new system should work - over 2,400 people with lived experience of the benefits we now administer. These Panels ensure people’s views and needs shape our new services – for instance, the application process for grants, and in how and when people can contact Social Security Scotland.

If public services are to understand and respond to the distinctive needs of different communities they need to be rooted in their locale. Our local public services  are legally required to work together, and with their community organisations and enterprise, to improve outcomes, especially for their most vulnerable citizens, and to focus on what they agree to be local priorities. These Community Planning Partnerships possess a strong understanding of local needs and aspirations built on statistical evidence, experiences of local partners and – crucially – feedback from ever-strengthening engagement with communities themselves.

Having achieved a close understanding of people’s needs and aspirations, then what do public services target in response? 

It’s rarely the complete answer to reform, but the Scottish Government has undertaken structural change to prepare our public services for the future. The SG has legislated to integrate health and social care delivery. And we now have a  single national police service and a single national fire and rescue service. They position and mobilise resources and expertise strategically across the country according to rapidly changing risk and demand, and at the same time respond flexibly to local priorities. (One of my fondest and abiding memories of seeing PS in action was at a Radiohead concert in a Glasgow park a couple of years ago. In response to a very distraught, sobbing young woman sitting at the foot of a tree, the young, male police officer was squatting next to her saying – ‘well, perhaps that relationship just wasn’t meant to be?’).

A commitment to prevention is also at the heart of our public services. If Scotland’s children are loved, nurtured and well-educated, if its citizens are healthy and active, if communities are safe, then it’s not only good for our collective wellbeing. Prevention also protects the long-term sustainability of our public services, relieving them of draining expense all too often associated with crisis intervention.

These responses require collective action by our public services, including the third sector and communities themselves. Complex needs require integrated responses that align and make best use of the collective resources and skills of different agencies. This is challenging. 

For instance, our local authorities and health boards have struggled to balance their shared obligations to health and social care integration with other responsibilities. But integration is yielding early returns. In the last financial year, the number of unscheduled bed days in hospital fell by 6%. Good in itself – but beyond this statistic lies what it means for people’s quality of life, when they are able to return home for comfort and dignity towards the close of their lives. 

I recently witnessed a local example of prevention and collaboration at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. The Navigators Programme is built on collaborative working by the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit in association with Medics Against Violence and our National Health Service, tailored to the needs of individuals and with a strong emphasis on prevention.

Less than a third of emergency department patients who are victims of violence report the incident to the police. Often after they leave hospital they return home to the problem that led them there in the first place.

Navigators offer a holistic service to the patient, to reduce violent incidents, reduce hospitalisation through violence and support positive lifestyle changes in a credible, compassionate, human and practical way. It was inspiring to hear the passion and commitment from both medical and non-medical staff. 

And that takes me onto the importance of not just what public services do but how they do it. Our public services need to work in different ways in different places in order to understand and meet the needs of different communities. 

For example, the millennial generation has different expectations, habits and preferences in how they wish to access their public services. You will have heard the joke about the new millennial edition of Monopoly - you go round the board, but can only ever afford to rent. And a more serious theory about how the demise of the department store is perhaps due to the very different buying powers and choices of millennials. I had bought my first house at 25 and was shopping for a bed and cutlery... my son certainly isn’t….Young people have very different expectations of public services – there is no nostalgia for the birth of the NHS here, just irritation you can’t register with a GP on line.

We must recognise and understand these shifts in lifestyles, trends and expectations if we are to modernise our services in line with the diverse communities we serve.

The Scottish Government’s CivTech programme is at the forefront of new models of innovation and procurement - harnessing new technologies to drive daring and innovation in the public sector, and so create new and better products and services. Key to this is to identify problems - challenges - that need solved, and then let loose the skills, ingenuity and inventiveness of the nation's tech sector to find the best solution.

And harnessing the benefits of digital transformation is essential given greater demands and tightening budgets. The Scottish Government has traditionally used both public and private partners to deliver public services. Private delivery partners have nearly always been large companies, and when asked to solve challenges, they tend to deliver 'huge' and 'impressive' solutions which were not necessarily what was required.

The CivTech pilot is exploring and exploiting the delivery of new, innovative and truly beneficial products and services built by companies that would not normally consider working for the public sector – and that’s exciting. 

But the Scottish Government also sees empowering communities as part of public service reform,  and is putting more control into the hands of local people. The Community Empowerment Act makes it easier for communities to be heard on public authority decisions that matter to them, and for communities to take responsibility for local public sector assets - land and buildings.

We are also supporting participatory budgeting, giving people power to decide local spending priorities. The target is to have 1% of council budgets decided in this way by 2021, amounting to over €100 million per annum.

This focus on communities demands certain values, cultures and behaviours. The new National Performance Framework recognises this, by highlighting kindness, dignity and compassion as the underpinning values for Scotland. 

The NPF needs leaders who can see beyond their own immediate technical and institutional interests to the wider cause. People who are committed to making our public services kind, accessible, and closer to Scotland’s communities. People who listen. Who seek out voices not traditionally heard. Who aren’t afraid if they don’t hold all the answers in their own hands. And who can lead, shape and effect real change.

This starts with recruiting the right leaders, ensuring we and our workforces are representative of the people we serve, and attracting talent from across our population. The Scottish Parliament has set a statutory objective for women to make up 50% of public sector board members by 2022. Both the Scottish Cabinet and my own senior management team are gender equal. And with Scotland’s minority ethnic population of 4%, over 3% of our SCS declare minority ethnic.

And the Scottish Leaders’ Forum brings all of Scotland’s local government, health, higher education, police, fire and third sector most senior leadership together as a force for change, and to promote the behaviours and leadership essential for outcomes. This Forum brings to life the distributed, open and collaborative leadership crucial to the delivery of outcomes. (Personally, I have never subscribed to the heroic leadership model – it is an isolated and isolating style, often with pretty brutal and short term impact... but that is another seminar in itself...)

No, for my money we must work with and  through others, including our communities, and make the most of our talent, by empowering our teams. 

One example is the 'Think Yes' programme, where Glasgow Housing Association has devolved leadership across its workforce, encouraging staff to work creatively to support residents. Staff have found ways to get the right support to tenants, even on the non housing  issues which have a bearing on their tenancy, such as education bursaries and employment. 

The results  are striking. Tenant satisfaction has improved from 67% in 2008-2009 to 92% in 2018. Rent arrears have fallen by almost two-thirds. As have staff sickness levels. And the organisation has secured savings of €3.9 million, from a flatter structure requiring fewer local managers.

So far, so good. But this is a journey. The fruits of an approach centred on outcomes take years to ripen – and many Parliamentary terms. There is more to do to ensure our government eco-system supports and values longer-term commitments to improve outcomes. 

For instance, we need to shift our business planning processes, such as the annual Programme for Government, the SG  Budget and Medium-Term Financial Outlook so short term decisions  are taken with longer term outcomes firmly in view.

We need to create better mechanisms to surface and address prioritisation, tough decisions and trade-offs. And we need better quantitative and qualitative evidence about our progress and what works.

Our systems of accountability must test investment in long-term goals as much as short-term performance, and recognise the individual and collective contributions required by multiple agencies at national, regional and local levels to improve outcomes. 

But more than anything, we must ensure we keep the outcome faith, and not allow hard frosts of other events – no matter how significant – to threaten the longer-term harvest of our approach. We need to keep reinforcing our values and be explicit in demonstrating our ongoing commitment to outcomes.

The task we leaders face is therefore not primarily a technical ask but a behavioural challenge – and a very human one. 

I don’t know about you, but I did not join public service for the fast cars and the glamour. So let me finish with a personal reflection.

I was at a family funeral recently, sitting next to a plaque dated 1861, which was dedicated to the dispenser of the local medical institution. The plaque said simply ‘He went about doing good’. Surely that embodies the values, relationships and motivation of the best of public services - and reflects the best of what we aspire to as public servants.

Thank you.


Central enquiry unit:

Back to top