Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

“Civil service must be more transparent” – Scotsman

This article by Ben Thomson appeared in the Scotsman.

Politicians need to be accountable and transparent. But so do those who implement policy – civil servants – and the structure of government can play an important role in increasing prosperity and improving public services.

There is a need for greater accountability in the senior civil service with democratically elected politicians making senior appointments, as happens in France, Australia and Canada.

The starting point would be to give the First Minister sole responsibility for appointing the Permanent Secretary in the Scottish government, and devolving responsibility for the civil service in Scotland to Edinburgh.

Further, ministers should be able to choose their own advisers and the private secretaries in their offices as well as drawing on outside expertise so they can call on a broader range of advice.

This approach is more honest in that it recognises there is no such thing as “objective” advice. What is needed is a process that ensures the subjective baggage of senior civil servants is openly accountable with proper scrutiny of appointments by parliament.

In addition, it recognises that ministers who are democratically accountable have an incentive to appoint the right people and seek outside assistance to ensure they receive the quality of advice necessary to ensure effective policy making.

But senior officials also need to take greater personal responsibility. The doctrine of ministerial responsibility should be changed so that ministers are responsible for the overall strategic direction of policy and its communication, while officials are accountable for the construction of policy and the use of resources.

Recruitment should also be more transparent, with all civil service vacancies advertised openly, no discrimination in favour of internal candidates and the abolition of the grades system. This would encourage a healthy flow of personnel between the voluntary, private and public sectors and the recruitment of people with direct experience in the policy areas they cover.