Building bridges for the Executive

5th January 2001 at 00:00
Neil Munro meets the civil servant who has been joining up policies at Cosla

Polite and erudite, David Henderson is the sort of chap who gives bureaucrats a good name. He even gives the statisticians whence he came a good name.

The 48-year-old head of policy development with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, responsible for education and 101 other things, "disappears" (his description) this month to return to the Scottish Executive and a stint in the justice department.

His two-year secondment from St Andrew's House to Cosla's Rosebery House headquarters in Edinburgh was an unusual move at the time. It followed the tragic death in a car accident of David Ferguson, his Cosla predecessor. Now, however, the Executive is keen to encourage similar two-way exchanges to reach parts that would not otherwise be refreshed.

Mr Henderson is certainly in no doubt about the added perspective the posting has given him. "It has been a fascinating job and I wouldn't have missed it for the world," he says.

"I now have a much clearer appreciation, although I was aware of it before, that it is very easy to sit in the Executive and come up with a brilliant idea for addressing a problem, process it through the system and assume that it is then implemented. My period here has made me realise that people out there are having to implement ideas from the centre while coping with the pressures of all their other day-to-day responsibilities as well, and suddenly you discover that what you thought was happening ain't happening."

Not for the last time, he refers to the theme of "partnership", not just as a feel-good requirement but as a hard-nosed appreciation of what it takes to make something work effectively. The collaborative implementation of devolved school management, for which he had responsibilility in one of his many Scottish Office guises, is his model - of which more later.

At Cosla, he was certainly made well aware of joined-up local government. As well as education, he was responsible for social work, culture, sport, public health, drug misuse, asylum and immigration. "It gives you a very clear overview of how issues impinge on one another," he says. "Social work links into children and families which impacts on looked-after children which brings in special educational needs which then makes you think about education in general."

Mr Henderson concedes it was "a huge job" but, in a frequent reference, he says Cosla's "excellent staff" make it doable. It was only the latest in a series of highly challenging public posts. He joined the Civil Service from Edinburgh University in 1974, the classic career official. The apparently dry field of statistics led him to work on the index of production in the then Scottish Economic Planning Department, which eventually included the not-so-dry and highly political statistics surrounding the arrival of North Sea oil.

A brief interruption in educational statistics led back to the world of industry and a spell spent modelling the Scottish economy. He was responsible at one point for the pound;300 million regional aid budget, became involved in the legislation which created Scottish Enterprise out of the Scottish Development Agency and joined the team that privatised Scottish Power and Hydro-Electric.

Mr Henderson became relatively well known in educational circles in 1991 when he was promoted to head the schools division in the Tory-ruled Scottish Office. He managed the considerable feat of retaining the respect of those he dealt with under the tempestuous ministry of Michael Forsyth and the rather more languid style of Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.

These were the contentious days when bureaucratic flesh ha to be put on the policy bones of opting out, school boards, the parents' charter, devolved school management, assisted places - "everything except the curriculum and teachers". Even special educational needs acquired a controversial dimension at the hands of Mr Forsyth who was determined to establish conductive education for children suffering from cerebral palsy. Mr Henderson became project director of the pound;2 million Craighalbert Centre in Cumbernauld which was the result.

While obviously the very model of a modern civil servant, his spell at Cosla was an indication that he likes to see the world from other angles. Similarly, when he was in the education department at the Scottish Office, he shadowed a secondary head, which gave him an insight into the pressures - and attractions - of running a school.

Two years in housing followed before he opted for "the challenge" of the very different world of local government. The first thing he had to get used to was the proximity of politicians, coming as he did from the arm's length experience of dealing with Westminster-based ministers. Not only that, but councillors and officials often addressed each other on first name terms. The Parliament, of course, has changed the relationship at national level somewhat so that politicians and their officials are much more visible to each other as well as to the public.

Cosla, he says, has become more proactive in dealing with the issues of the day, often working quietly behind the scenes to influence Executive policies - sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

"It's a question of striking the right balance," Mr Henderson says. "We need national standards and consistency in a whole range of areas, but equally we have got to take account of what communities want."

The search for balancing national regulations against local flexibility - to which the Executive is not averse - has led Mr Henderson to be a firm advocate of the "DSM approach" used to implement devolved school management. He says this was "a big success", not just because it involved all the major players but because it simply required education authorities to draw up a DSM scheme, set out the criteria and then left them free to decide the best way of implementing them. A legislative strait-jacket was avoided.

Ironically, as someone who presided over school boards, placing requests and the recording of special needs pupils, he now wants to see the respective legislation scrapped and replaced with DSM-style approaches.

"We want something that enshrines the importance of, for example, parental choice and working with parents without the rigidities that accompany the existing legislation," he says.

Mr Henderson is also well aware that representations to the Executive should not just amount to the usual clarion call for more cash. Cosla's report on school buildings, for example, while making it clear that a pound;1.3 billion repair and maintenance backlog had built up, also said that throwing new money after old was not the answer. Questions had to be raised about the kind of school required in the future, the possibility of pooling expenditure to reflect wider community investment in schools and the different needs of urban and rural areas.

The Executive's decision to set up a "future schools" unit which will explore some of these ideas in conjunction with local authorities, is not entirely coincidental.

Mr Henderson is, of course, quick to avoid giving the impression that the Executive is devoid of policy ideas and that it needs outside input. He has not quite gone native: you can take a civil servant out of the Civil Service but you cannot entirely take the Civil Service out of the man.

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