Scottish Leaders' Forum 2019: Permanent Secretary speech

About leadership in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times.

The last time I addressed this illustrious audience was at a Scottish Leaders' Forum (SLF) event almost exactly two years ago. Those of you who heard me speak that day may recall I described the times we were living in then as VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.  

How wrong I was – these are the VUCA times. 

Constitutional change and EU Exit dominate the current political context. Geopolitical shifts continue, with risks to global security. There has been a slow and fragile recovery from the economic crisis of 2008. And the global economic axis is moving from West to East as I know having been in China last month. There is the Fourth Industrial Revolution with new technology and innovations such as AI, genomic science and synthetic biology. And we are witnessing major changes in global demography. And of course, there is the climate emergency. 

Alongside all of these changes, we know – and I know you witness, up close, everyday – the continuing and deeply entrenched economic and social inequalities that restrict the life chances of all too many people in Scotland.  

This global and local context means it is more important than ever that we continue to deliver and strive for improvement. And that we go on tackling inequalities, improving public services and boosting inclusive and sustainable economic growth – with wellbeing at the heart of what we do.  

But there’s more. We can’t merely tolerate VUCA – we must embrace it’s the new norm. Leadership strategies based on coping measures won’t wash. Nor will silo based, or hero leadership – a style I have personally never subscribed to. No, we must work collaboratively, disrespecting boundaries, accessing diverse experience and perspectives. We must work with, and through, others - including our communities as we heard so powerfully this morning.  

Now we know our National Performance Framework is our North Star here - it focuses our energies on what matters most - improving outcomes for all in Scotland. But, we also know this is a journey. The fruits of an approach centred on outcomes take years to ripen – and many Parliamentary terms. And there is more to do to ensure the public and third sector support and value our longer-term commitments. 

We heard examples of how we do this earlier today; by co-producing, targeting and delivering policies which reflect real people’s lives – with all the complexities, messiness, and interdependency that we know real life entails.  

Before we act, we need to understand and take time to listen to people, earn trust and genuinely understand their needs and hopes.    

I am preaching to the converted here. Community Planning Partnerships in Scotland and you – the organisations that convene and constitute them – are building an increasingly rich understanding of distinct local needs and aspirations, shaped in large part by feedback from ever-strengthening engagement with your communities. 

But each individual from that community – each of us – is a member of multiple communities, defined by not just geography, but other characteristics and experience, whether that be gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, age, faith, or socio-economic circumstances. Whether we be a care experienced young person, a refugee or a gypsy traveller. Understanding the distinctive nature of needs, aspirations and life circumstances of our communities and – as importantly – how they intersect – is crucial.  

As an example, Social Security Scotland is using Experience Panels of over 2,400 people with lived experience of the benefits we now administer to inform major decisions on how our new social security system should work, with dignity and respect at their heart.  

And in her book ‘Invisible Women’, Caroline Criado Perez shows us how, in a world largely built for and by men, we are systematically ignoring half the population. She exposes the 'gender data gap' – a gap in our knowledge that is at the root of perpetual, systematic discrimination against women. From medical trials that routinely don’t provide gender-disaggregated information, to car safety features that have been tested only on dummies based on 'average' male bodies, a pervasive but invisible bias can be seen. This has a profound effect on women’s health and wellbeing, and indeed, their lives.  

How we grasp and respond to the distinctive and intersectional nature of individuals’ needs requires collective action by our public services, the third sector and communities themselves, with a forensic commitment to collaboration and prevention at the forefront. Complex needs require integrated responses that align with, and make best use of, the collective resources and skills of different agencies.  

This is challenging – for policies and services. But the results can be inspiring.  

Some of you will have seen or heard about the Navigators Programme, built on collaborative working by the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, Medics Against Violence and several health boards, tailored to the needs of individuals and with an 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. I witnessed it at work at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. It was inspiring to hear the passion, kindness and commitment from both medical and non-medical staff.

Because we know it is not just what public services do - but how they do it. One of my fondest and abiding memories of seeing public services 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?’.

Our public services need to work in different ways in different places in order to understand and meet the needs of different communities.

Now Governments may sometimes see their role as reflecting on what is best for society from a distance – but in truth we are an intrinsic part of it, especially here in Scotland. And as such we need to do more to ensure we are genuinely inclusive across the skills and talents, and the perspectives and insights, of the society in which we live in. This starts with recruiting the right people, not just to diversify the system as it currently stands, but to help to reshape and reimagine systems so that they benefit as many people as possible. To ensure we are attracting talent from across our population and that we are truly representative of the people we serve.  

Both the Scottish Cabinet and my own senior management team are gender equal. But the employment rate of the white population in Scotland is consistently higher than the minority ethnic population, with the gap in 2018 between both rates being 19.7%.

As part of the Scottish Disability Action Plan, we are setting a target for the numbers of disabled people working in the Scottish Government. And a recruitment and retention action plan for disabled people - aiming to focus on improving the experience of colleagues at work and not simply boosting numbers. 

And we have set an organisational diversity challenge to be representative of Scotland’s working population by 2025 – driving change and innovation into both our recruitment and talent pipeline work. 

But a focus on communities demands we also reflect on certain values, cultures and behaviours. And the refreshed National Performance Framework recognises this, by highlighting kindness, dignity and compassion as the underpinning values for Scotland.  

But more than anything, it requires us to keep returning to and keep reinforcing our values. And to be explicit in demonstrating our ongoing commitment to outcomes. The National Performance Framework needs leaders who can demonstrate these values, cultures and behaviours, and 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 step up to lead, shape and effect real change.  

And that returns me to my original theme. Now, more than ever, we leaders need to lead and connect with people in the VUCA age. I realised my own role in this – and regular emphasis of the VUCA world we live in – might be making an impact when I saw a member of staff had remarked on my blog: "I wish the Perm Sec would just VUCA off." That’s speaking truth unto power! 

And that’s also about connecting with and empowering our teams. This theme features in John Sturrock’s recent report on NHS Highland, following allegations of a bullying culture. John will be speaking later – but his report goes beyond examination of what happened there. It is a powerful articulation of the importance of compassionate, person-centred leadership…   

He says:   

“There may be no greater leadership challenge in 2019 than to help people under pressure to feel valued and for everyone to appreciate the benefits which come from rebuilding strong relationships, bringing out the best in each other and enabling everyone to be more effective in every way." 

“That probably means letting go, enabling people to thrive and for people to be given responsibility. In an infinitely complex world, not everything can be controlled or micro-managed from the top.”

Let me conclude by citing just three leadership practices and qualities that help us here:  

  • firstly, humility and recognising the importance of connecting with others. Humility is essential if we are to remain open to new ideas, to challenge, and to collaborative leadership in the pursuit of outcomes. Public services that are committed to meeting the distinctive needs of different communities cannot be hidebound to standard – nor silo – universal truths. We need to be comfortable in not knowing the right answer – not easy particularly for the civil service given its history and traditional role. Nor when our teams crave certainty and the public seeks simple solutions
  • the second quality I would pick out is curiosity, and the desire to connect with others. Practicing humility provides space for curious problem solvers. People who take time to understand people’s experiences and other viewpoints. People who use that understanding to anticipate, adapt to and even shape the rapid pace of change
  • the final quality I want to highlight is tenacity. We must ensure that 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 and most inclusive of our public services - and reflects what we aspire to as public servants?

Thank you. 


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