Scotland’s Policy-Making Capacity: Background and Summary

I am part of the new ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change which begins work from Monday for two years on a large set of projects relating to constitutional change in Scotland. Here is a brief outline of part of its focus:

Constitutional change agendas in Scotland produce ‘windows of opportunity’ to discuss the future of Scottish politics and policymaking. In the 1990s, the devolution agenda was used by organisations such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention to propose major political reforms – associated with the phrase ‘new politics’ – regarding the role of government, parliament, interest groups and the public in politics. The independence agenda has prompted similar proposals from organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, recommending more local forms of public participation, and the ‘Common Weal’ project, recommending corporatism (close cooperation between government, business groups and unions) and greater popular participation, as part of radical reforms of Scotland’s social and economic organisation. The common theme is the idea that a Scottish government can produce a distinctive ‘policy style’ (the way that it makes and implements policy). This style may be used to pursue an alleged social and democratic tradition in Scotland that has much more in common with the ‘consensualism’ of the Nordic countries than the ‘majoritarianism’ of the UK. Yet, the experience of devolution suggests that Scottish politics shares many features with its Westminster counterpart. Both systems are driven by government, with Parliaments performing a limited scrutiny role. Public participation is limited largely to Scottish Parliament and UK General elections. Many of the differences between Scottish and UK practices – such as a more ‘bottom up’ approach to public service delivery, in which local authorities are given more autonomy – may result from the Scottish Government’s size and policy capacity rather than its distinctive culture.

In this context, we examine a future Scottish Government’s ability to make policy in a distinctive way, in partnership with the main social partners (business, unions, the third sector), public sector bodies and professions, the public and the Scottish Parliament to elaborate shared long-term goals. We identify policymaking constraints which are specific to Scotland (including its size and responsibilities) and common to all systems (including the limited resources of policymakers and a challenging economic context which may undermine some types of policy innovation). We draw on the experience of devolution to paint a realistic picture of potential changes in policy and policymaking and use these insights to examine the Government’s ability to pursue major reforms. We focus on socioeconomic policies which rely on its ability to link taxation policy to spending priorities and policy outcomes. We use ‘preventative spending’ as a case study, examining policy outcomes and linking them to the policies of governments. This area is a key test of the ability of a small government to pursue ‘holistic’ government by bringing together a range of departments and organisations to consider the reinforcing (or undermining) effect of a range of policies on each other – and the need to cooperate in a meaningful way, with a range of organizations, to secure shared policy aims.


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Filed under public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

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