[Update 5.11.12 This post is, by far, my most read. Surely it can’t be just because it has an obscure title. If you read this, could you please tweet or email me to tell me why you are reading this post in particular?]
I wrote this last year for Holyrood Magazine but forgot to post it (or check if went in the magazine):
Inheritance before choice in Scottish Government policy
In the light of the SNP’s election avalanche, are we looking forward to 5 years of remarkable policy innovation and change, driven from the top down? We might be tempted to say ‘yes’. We associate majority government with power. A majority government is a strong government, able to formulate policy unencumbered by opposition and without the need to gain agreement. In Scotland, this argument might feel particularly strong following 12 years in which the Scottish Parliament has provided minimal opposition and, even during the minority years, often little change to the Scottish Government’s position. However, the answer from the public policy literature is ‘no’, for the following reasons:
Inheritance before choice. All governments inherit massive policy commitments from their predecessors, which leaves them very limited room for manoeuvre. In fact, they can only hope to change overall spending commitments by perhaps 5% in a full term. In Scotland, those commitments include spending on free personal care, tuition fees, the NHS and the wages of doctors, nurses and teachers (even if some wages will be reduced). Lower budgets means fewer choices in terms of policy innovation, but more tough decisions on how to reduce service provision (returning us to the idea of ‘doing less, better’.)
‘Bounded rationality’. Ministers only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues at the expense of all others. This limitation is offset to some extent by the unusual ability of Scottish ministers to work together, but it still remains.
Policy communities. Most other issues are devolved to civil servants who, in turn, maintain close working relationships with interest groups and other organisations (most notably local authorities). Such relationships endure because civil servants seek information from the most expert and interested participants and because securing their involvement leads to fewer problems of opposition.
Multilevel policymaking. Many policy decisions may be fully or partly out of Scottish Government control. In some cases, such as agriculture, fishing and the environment, policy has been Europeanised, with limited ability of the Scottish Government to have influence. In others, such as defence and most key economic decisions, it is primarily a UK decision. In others, the Scottish Government has devolved responsibility to local authorities and quangos, with limited means to intervene. The Scottish Government also relies on nongovernmental bodies such as the private sector to fulfil its economic objectives – an area made more difficult by the Scottish Government’s very limited economic levers.
Unexpected events. Serendipity plays a huge role in policymaking and many decisions are made very quickly following a series of events that command attention. Therefore, we may not be able to predict the Scottish Government agenda in many cases. The Edinburgh trams crisis may prove to be a good example. This is a project that the SNP Government did not want to fund or manage, but it is still obliged to pay a disproportionate amount of attention to the issue.
Formulation is not implementation. This point has been particularly true during the new SNP era. The Scottish Government seems relatively content to set high level strategic priorities and provide budgets for key initiatives, then leave the detailed implementation to bodies such as local authorities. This is ‘bottom up’ not top down policymaking.
These factors make measuring policy success very difficult. Indeed, evaluations of success have become be key battleground in party politics. The issue of class sizes is a classic example. The idea of reducing class sizes at key stages was established well before the SNP’s term, but remains a key commitment. It is also high profile, presenting the SNP with a dilemma that it has yet to resolve: how to look committed to a policy without enforcing its implementation. The opposition parties have used this issue in particular to try to make the Scottish Government look weak and ineffective, while the SNP has continued (very successfully) with the idea that it is governing competently by pursuing consensus and/ or building trust with implementing organisations.
The 2011 election result suggests that its strategy is working remarkably well so far. The next key test is majority government. People may have expected compromise during minority rule but perhaps they expect something different now, particularly during an era in which tough choices have to be made about existing commitments. Yet, there is little evidence so far of a change of approach, and rightly so. Top-down policymaking is often politically expensive; it attracts unwelcome opposition and reduces the ability of governments to secure ‘ownership’ among the most interested and powerful groups necessary to produce long term policy success. This was a chance that the Thatcher government often seemed willing to take, but the SNP government is a different beast. The best example so far is the Offensive Behaviour at Football bill, which the SNP introduced for a ‘quick win’ before withdrawing from the emergency bill process in favour of lengthy consultation. The alcohol minimum pricing bill is more controversial in party political terms, but the Scottish Government has strong support from the medical and public health professions. The rest of the programme is a combination of worthy, inoffensive and low key (perhaps with the exception of police and fire service reform), which suggests that the SNP will choose its battles wisely to maintain its image of governing competence.