Speaker Biographies



Rona Dougall is a broadcaster, freelance journalist and also a popular TV presenter best known as the host of STV’s flagship current affairs programme ‘Scotland Tonight‘. The thirty minute live programme takes an in-depth look at the big news stories of the day, along with sport, politics, business, art and entertainment. Before becoming a Scottish Television anchor, Rona was Sky News Scotland correspondent for over 15 years. During that time she covered many headline stories, including the Dunblane massacre, the trial of the Lockerbie bomber at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands, the death of Princess Diana from Balmoral, the opening of the Scottish parliament and several Scottish elections.

She was also part of the British Bafta award winning team which covered the terrorist attack at Glasgow airport.

Off duty Rona Dougall is a mother to her two children, a keen runner and a voracious reader.



Anas Sarwar was elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party in 2021 and has been at the forefront of Scottish politics for a decade. He is the first Muslim and person of colour to head a major political party in the UK.

Anas joined the Labour Party when he was 16. He studied dentistry at the University of Glasgow and worked as a dentist in the NHS in Paisley for five years. He was first elected as an MP in 2010 and was then elected as deputy leader of Scottish Labour one year later. In 2016 he was elected to the Scottish Parliament as MSP for Glasgow.



David is an Associate Director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and helps lead two main areas of research at the Institute. First is work on devolved and local government finance, with a particular focus on the distribution of funding, and the incentives and risks that different funding regimes entail for sub-national government, as well as responses to these incentives. This includes work on the fiscal frameworks of Scotland and Wales and on the ongoing major changes to English local government finance. Second is work on tax and social protection policy in developing countries, including the joint IFS – ODI Centre for Tax Analysis in Developing Countries (TaxDev) funded by the FCDO.



Akash Paun is Programme Director for Devolution at the Institute for Government in London. He leads work on the state of the union and devolution to all parts of the United Kingdom. He is the lead author of The art of the devolution deal: How England’s counties and cities can make a success of devolution, which was published in July 2023.

Akash is also a member of the Expert Panel advising the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, which was set up in 2022 by the Welsh Government. He has previously worked at the UCL Constitution Unit, the British Academy, the London School of Economics, and as an English teacher in Prague and Paris. 


Sebastian Burnside is Chief Economist at NatWest Group and joined the bank in 2009. His insights help the bank to understand how it needs to change to meet the demands of an evolving economy and customer base. His analysis covers a wide range of topics impacting retail and commercial customers, including demographic change and the labour market, and macroprudential and monetary policy. Before joining NatWest Group he worked for Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, and in consultancy. He holds degrees from the London School of Economics and University of Edinburgh.



Mandy Rhodes is the managing director of Holyrood Communications and editor of the flagship title Holyrood magazine. Mandy graduated from Stirling University in the early 1980s with a joint honours degree in Scottish history and sociology. She trained on a local newspaper in Wester Hailes and completed her journalism training at Napier University. She has worked for more than 30 years in journalism in Scotland in newsprint, television and radio broadcasting and was part of the launch team of Scotland on Sunday. She has won numerous awards over the years including PPA Magazine Editor of the Year, Feature Writer of the Year and Columnist of the Year. Mandy brings a wealth of media experience to Holyrood Communications and an unparalleled contacts book. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has described her as “one of the best interviewers” in the business.



Founder of Newsdirect, Kirsty is a journalist, entrepreneur and speaker with an extensive CV gained over three decades in news, analysis and monitoring.  Kirsty regularly contributes to podcasts and writes about current affairs and the political world of work. She is a founder member of Association for Scottish Public Affairs (ASPA) and has recently-joined the CIPR’s public affairs committee.

Outside of work, Kirsty plays piano and church organ and enjoys spending time out of doors, especially in the Scottish Borders where she lives.



Jackson Carlaw CBE MSP served as Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party from 2019 to 2020. He previously served as Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservative Party from 2011 to 2019. He has been a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) since 2007, first as an additional member for the West Scotland region and later for the Eastwood constituency since 2016. He is Convener of the Public Petitions and Citizen Participation Committee.



Mark is a researcher and pollster with over 20 years experience. After 10 years as Director of Ipsos MORI in Edinburgh, Mark set up Diffley Partnership in 2017, delivering research and insight for clients across the public, private and third sectors in Scotland and further afield. Clients include the Scottish government and other national public bodies, major companies and national and international charities.

In his career Mark has provided polling, analysis and commentary on numerous political events, from elections to the UK and Scottish parliaments to the referendums on Scottish independence and EU membership. He has worked with and advised political parties and campaigns of all persuasions through his career and is a regular media contributor on public opinion and polling.



John leads the UK Public Affairs team at H/Advisors Cicero. A strategic communications consultant with 17 years’ experience working in London and Washington D.C., he has advised clients in financial and professional services, technology, global hospitality, defence and mining industries. He is known for his work on complex issues in highly regulated markets. He was named 2023 Public Affairs Professional of the Year in the PR Week UK Corporate, City and Public Affairs Awards.

He is a member of the Executive Committee of the PRCA Public Affairs Board and is a freeman of the Company of Communicators, the City of London livery company for PR professionals. John is a non-executive director of Churches Mutual, a workplace credit union for employees and trustees of Britain’s churches. He is member of the Advisory Board of the Managing Partners Forum, which promotes management excellence in the professional services sector. He is a keen BBQ chef, aviation enthusiast, husband to Marie and dad to two young boys.



As the public face of Prosper, Sara works tirelessly to make sure members’ thinking is shaping government and industry action.

She is a hands-on leader, working closely with the Prosper team to meet members’ needs, and acts as the main point of communication between the board of directors and the staff team. It’s very important to Sara that Prosper represents the true diversity of corporate and civil Scotland, and she’s a huge advocate for purposeful ways of working.

Sara is a fair-weather wild swimmer who also loves discovering Scotland’s places by bike and on foot. As well as mum-dancing to old soul music, she is hooked on history, current affairs, political podcasts and jazz gigs.



James Mackenzie is a freelance public affairs and PR campaigner and strategist, working mostly for environmental NGOs, including the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust, Action to Protect Rural Scotland, Blue Marine Foundation, and Solar Energy Scotland. Prior to turning freelance he was head of media for the Green MSPs, and before that worked in the Parliament’s own press office, specialising in the universally loved Holyrood building during construction.



Since April 2018, Anna has been the Chief Executive of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations – the umbrella body for charities, community groups and social enterprises. After various roles in HR in local government, she joined the employers function at COSLA, then moved into children’s policy roles including championing change for care experienced children and young people in Scottish Government. In 2009, became Chief Executive of the Scottish Social Services Council – the professional regulator for social work and social care.

Anna was a trustee of Who Cares Scotland for 8 years and is now on the Oversight Board for The Promise.