Scotland: The State of the State
Scotland’s government, politics and public sector continue to diverge from the rest of the UK and our research finds that maturing fiscal powers have taken its autonomy to the next level – with all of the difficult choices that brings.
After two years of exercising new powers over income tax, forecasts suggest a shortfall for the Scottish Government’s spending power totalling more than £1 billion over the next three years, which means increasingly difficult spending decisions for ministers.
For civil servants, these hard choices will add further pressure to a challenging environment. Interviewees for our research told us that Scotland’s civil service has spent the past decade energised by the Scottish National Party’s clarity of vision, but that energy could wane after years of austerity, increasing expectations from ministers and scenario-planning for both independence and Brexit.
In the words of public sector leaders
"The new powers are starting to get real. We are getting more fiscal and economic data than we had before and most of it is crystallising the downside. Ministers are being confronted with serious choices." – Agency Director
"The single biggest issue is around the availability of the workforce we need to meet the demand we’re facing. We’re increasingly running at unprecedented levels of consultant vacancies and we aren’t filling post-graduate training schemes. The UK isn’t the only country suffering from a shortage of healthcare people. But if you’re sitting there making a choice, why would you choose the UK?" – NHS Director
"There’s real pressure on people leading Scotland’s public sector. We’re seeing high turnovers in senior jobs, people leaving after short periods and leaving in difficult circumstances. People are looking at those jobs and thinking ‘it’s not worth it’." – Agency Director
"We’re in a unique situation in relation to EU students because they are currently funded in the same way as Scottish students – they don’t pay tuition fees. That’s creating a flow of talent into the economy at a time our demographics are going in the opposite direction." – University Vice-Chancellor
"The opportunities for green jobs are a double-edged sword because there’s the question of what you do with jobs in sectors like oil and gas that are important in places like Aberdeen and then throw into the mix that a lot of the new employment would be relatively low skilled." – Non-Departmental Public Body Chief Executive
Beyond the centre of government, leaders in local services shared serious concerns over workforce and top talent. They told us that hospitals in particular struggle with excessive numbers of staff vacancies and that candidates for senior roles are increasingly put off by the level of personal, reputational and career risk at the top of the public sector.
In higher education, leaders told us about Scotland’s unique exposure to Brexit. In common with Scottish students, EU students at universities in Scotland do not pay tuition fees. University leaders argue that these students stay in the country after graduation, bringing in-demand skills into the national economy – and the impact of Brexit is therefore cause for concern.
Our crowdsourcing exercise with frontline public sector professionals found those in Scotland highly motivated and optimistic for the future. However, as with respondents across the UK, they told us that recent years have seen their workloads increase with no extra resources, and along with colleagues in other nations, they talked about working in old buildings with out-of-date technology.
Our citizen survey finds that views in Scotland are broadly consistent with those in the rest of the UK. While commentators have considered whether Scotland could become more Scandinavian in its style of government, with substantially higher taxes and higher spending, our survey found support for that approach is no stronger in Scotland than in England. As in the rest of the UK, people in Scotland do want to see more extensive public services, and do accept that means higher taxes, but the strength of those views is on a par with England.
However, people in Scotland do stand out in their perceptions of inequality. Some 57 per cent told us that people do not have equal opportunities to get ahead, compared to a UK average of 48 per cent, as the chart illustrates.