News 21st Feb 2023

Maintaining trust in Scotland’s government: Our aspirations for transparent Scottish politics

Juliet Swann

Senior Policy Officer

Juliet (she/her) is based in Edinburgh and leads our work outside of Westminster - primarily in Scotland, but also with local government in England and with an eye on Wales and Northern Ireland. Prior to joining TI-UK Juliet worked for various Scottish NGOs across the democracy, participation, human rights and environment sectors. This included working to introduce the Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016, advising the Scottish Government and other stakeholders on inclusive and effective public involvement in decision making, and delivering engagement projects including Scotland’s Climate Assembly. She is a member of the Scottish Civil Society Open Government Network Committee.

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A week after the shock resignation of Scotland’s First Minister, Transparency International UK’s Senior Policy Officer for Nations and Regions, Juliet Swann, reflects on how both the process and the eventual successor can embrace transparency, build trust and promote integrity in the structures of Scottish government.

On March 27 a new SNP leader will be announced and, pending the outcome of any negotiations between the parties that make up the Scottish Parliament, that person will likely be voted in as the new First Minister.

It’s fair to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s government has seen a higher intensity of criticism and challenge of late than it experienced during most of her tenure. The unexpected departure of Lady Poole from the Scottish Covid-19 Inquiry, ongoing delays in delivering new ferries from the Ferguson Marine shipyard at considerable cost to the public purse, and disappointing results from the ScotWind auction are just a few of the events generating negative headlines.  

At Transparency International UK, our concern is less with the policy content of these critiques and more with how they all highlight how a lack of complete transparency leads to rumour, hearsay and conjecture which all undermine the principle of openness which was so celebrated when the Scottish Parliament was first founded. In turn this engenders mistrust in government and politicians, and one of the hallmarks of Sturgeon’s tenure has been an overwhelmingly positive trust rating. The Scottish social attitudes survey for 2021/22 found that 66 per cent of people in Scotland trusted the Scottish Government, compared to 22% who had faith in the UK Government to do the right thing.

It behoves whoever wins the leadership to ensure that the lack of transparency around these recent events does not carry over and cause that trust rating to fall.

We believe that rules which support integrity in politics and which encourage proactive transparency help counter corruption and, equally as important, the perception of potential corruption. The best way to demonstrate honesty and integrity in decision making is to “show your working” and ensure that it is accessible and understandable. This approach recognises the cost to the public purse and the impact of decisions on the public who all politicians are elected to serve.

Here, we set out some recommendations that would help ensure transparent and accountable politics in government in Scotland. We look forward to the leadership contest and stand ready to work with a new administration to deliver on our aspirations for a transparent Scottish politics.


  1. The contest

Between them, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak garnered over £1million in donations towards their leadership campaigns from individuals and companies. Whilst it is hard to imagine those sums of money being spent during this campaign, it remains that the candidates for SNP leader need to be clear which private interests are supporting them.

As we have recommended in the Westminster context, we would suggest that all donations over at least £500 made towards the leadership campaigns should be published, but arguably, given lower amounts of political spending generally in Scotland, this threshold should also be lower.

Whether candidates choose to declare donations below £500 or not, the legally required information should be made easily accessible to the general public during the campaign period. It should include the names of the donors, the amount donated, and if in kind, what it paid for. Generally, donations made to individual MSPs would be published in the MSPs financial register of interests. Any changes to this register must be made within 30 days. We would urge all candidates to both respect this requirement and seek to proactively publish donations on their own websites. As an aside we would suggest that updates to the MSPs financial register of interests should be date stamped.

Additionally, whilst there are no rules in law governing reporting of expenditure, we would suggest that candidates detailing where they spent their campaign funds would add transparency to their campaign.


  1. Appointing a team

Having been appointed as First Minister, the next task at hand is to appoint a cabinet, ministerial posts and Special Advisers (SpAds). Rather than having to search for the career history and registrable interests of any given appointee, this data should be made available alongside the announcement of appointment, and indeed all appointments made public.

Importantly this should include any employment history that might be relevant to that individual’s post or contribution to collective cabinet responsibility, as well as an accessible record of any gifts or donations received whilst in public office, and where relevant, their meetings with lobbyists during this parliamentary term.

Given all of this information should already be available for MSPs, it would not create additional work to collate and publish in an accessible format alongside information about the ministerial portfolios. We would also suggest this information be made available in respect of Special Advisers appointed by the new administration.

The so-called ‘revolving door’ between government and private sector can easily encourage a perception of favouritism, nepotism and, at worse, corruption. Exposing the links between present and past employment brings these possible conflicts of interest to light and improves trust in both the decisions made and the cohort of people involved in making them.


  1. In power – the architecture of transparency

Once the new First Minister begins the business of governing, we would welcome a re-affirmation of the founding principles of the Scottish Parliament to openness and integrity. Scotland is a member of the international Open Government Partnership (OGP), established by President Barack Obama in 2011. We urge the new First Minister to put open governance principles at the heart of their new government.

Specifically, we would recommend:

  • Sufficient resourcing of OGP in Scotland and enhancing the effectiveness of principles of Open Governance across the Scottish Government. An open government strategy can be applied to a wide range of government activities, including not just budgeting, law making and policy making, but also areas such as contracting and service delivery.
  • Revising and streamlining the Scottish Ministerial Code and Civil Service Code, with consideration given to also applying a consistent approach to the MSP code of conduct. This would include recording any potential conflicts of interest, as well as gifts and hospitality received, and also prior employment history within the past five years that is associated with the decisions now under the remit of the Minister, civil servant or SpAd.
  • Including meetings that lobbyists or those seeking to influence decision making have with Director Generals of Directorates within the Scottish Government in either the Scottish Lobbying Register or the record of Ministerial engagements, travel and gifts, or both.
  • Establishing an independent auditor to the Scottish Covid Inquiry who is accountable to Parliament and can be questioned by MSPs on a regular basis, and at least quarterly for the duration of the Inquiry. This appointment should be approved by the Scottish Parliament and the auditor should be free from fear or favour to offer honest and independent feedback to and from parliamentarians. It is possible this task could be shared by a citizens’ jury.
  • Appointing an Anti-Corruption Champion to oversee the above, monitor risks of corruption in decision making and the application of open governance principles in decision making.


Trust in government in Scotland is consistently higher than that of the UK government. If this is to be maintained it is vital that the new First Minister takes a proactive and energetic approach to transparency and accountability in how they govern, appoint and make decisions. It is essential that the executive be able to be held to account, and the recommendations above will assist in allowing both the public and parliamentarians to better see and understand the machinery of government.