Oct 3rd 2013: Aye, Minister (what civil servants really do) by Colin MacLean

Civil Service

Come along to The Counting House at 7pm for a talk by Colin MacLean. Enjoy meeting someone new and sharing a crust of bread. Click here for details

Name of speaker and subject:

Colin MacLean on working as a senior civil servant in Scottish Government

Title of talk:

Aye, Minister (what civil servants really do)

Summary of talk

The role of civil servants in Scotland is to support Ministers, to support the democratic process and to improve outcomes for Scotland.  These are not in conflict but they all need to be addressed.
The work of the civil service is governed by a Code of Values: impartiality, integrity, objectivity and honesty.
Civil servants engage in a wide range of activity including giving advice, communicating with the public, ensuring policies are implemented effectively, managing budgets and securing value for money, negotiating with other governments, ensuring the principles of public life are adhered to.
A number of examples will be used to illustrate these roles, values and activities, including: setting the Scottish Budget; introducing the Curriculum for Excellence; supporting politicians before, during and after an election.
Two themes will underpin much of the talk.  The first is that tensions, dilemmas and risks cannot be avoided.  How these are dealt with is critical. The second is that Sir Humphrey almost always appeared to be in control.  The reality is that power and control have to be shared. Success depends on effective working with a large number of people and organisations. Relationships, negotiating and people skills are key.

Bullet points of what you would like to cover:

Our role:-

  • To support Ministers (in their official role)
  • To supporting the democratic process
  • To improve outcomes for Scotland

Our values:-

  • Impartiality, Integrity, Objectivity, Honesty.

(Some) Types of activity:-

  • Providing advice to Ministers on policy issues
  • Communicating with the public and with organisations working in Scotland, including Freedom of Information requests
  • Working with others to secure effective implementation of policy
  • Managing Scottish budget
  • Supporting Ministers in the discharge of their formal duties (responding to questions, providing information to Parliament, making decisions about appointments and funding, etc)
  • Ensuring the democratic process operates effectively
  • Building and making effective use of good relationships with the public, private and third sectors
  • Building and making effective use of good relationships with other governments
  • Managing an effective organisation that provides leadership and is a role model


  • Budget process
  • Curriculum for Excellence – from concept to reality
  • Prevention – how to stop bad things happening
  • Working with politicians before, during and after an election

Suggested you-tube links, websites and / or texts where
further information may be found:


A few words about you and your passion:

I worked as a teacher, local authority education adviser, HM Inspector of Schools and the Scottish Office Chief Statistician before becoming a policy civil servant in 2000.  Since then I led teams working on education, children and family issues and finance, all within what is now Scottish Government.
The people of Scotland need and deserve the highest possible quality and standard of government and public services, and I believe they should be actively involved in decisions that affect them whenever possible, respected and informed.  Ministers, who have been democratically elected, have the right to support from civil servants in ensuring their policies are implemented.  Civil servants support Ministers but are accountable (to Parliament) for the propriety of public spending.   Like every other country, Scotland faces a range of challenges, some of them deep rooted.  Politicians have different views on how to address these issues and what kind of government they want to lead.  There are thousands of groups in Scotland who represent different interests and perspectives: all valid but often in conflict with each other.
Civil servants are in the uniquely privileged position of being able to engage with all of these issues.  As a civil servant, you do not always agree with the policy that you are tasked with implementing but everyone, including Ministers, understands that.  The job is never done – but it is hugely satisfying.  I am keen to share my particular experience.

A few lines about the history of your subject:

I would not presume to attempt to write a history of the governance of Scotland or of its civil service!

Anything else you may want to say:

While I will be open about the kinds of things that civil servants do and will illustrate with examples, I will, of course, be careful not to say anything that would betray confidences.  The issue of what should be transparent and what should remain private is difficult and important and I will cover that in my talk.