Addressing Academic Assumptions: Revisiting That Presentation (on the Scottish Parliament)

Presenting to colleagues in other disciplines is interesting because it makes you think about your disciplinary assumptions – what you often take for granted and would assume that your home audience knows too. This came up at a workshop led by legal academics. A small group of us sort of pointed out that we were political scientists and would approach the same topic (in this case, constitutional design) in different way. By the time it got to my talk, I felt that the paper I had prepared was incomplete because, from a policy studies perspective, I had my own starting point and my audience would not know about it:

  • Most policy is made in policy networks/ communities/ subsystems
  • The state is so large that it may become unmanageable. So, policymakers divide administration into departments and policymaking into sectors and subsector
  • Ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they delegate almost all policymaking to civil servants. Senior civil servants do the same to relatively junior civil servants.
  • Civil servants rely on participants such as interest group for information and advice. They may also seek a degree of group ‘ownership’ of policy. Civil servants and groups may form fairly close relationships over time.
  • The key point regards ‘parallel and serial processing’. Policymakers can only engage in serial (considering one issue at a time) while governments as a whole engage in parallel (processing many issues at once).

So, this is the context for a consideration of Parliament. An ill resourced Parliament can engage in serial processing but will struggle to engage in parallel – and therefore to hold the Government to account. The attention of ministers and parliamentarians will lurch from issue to issue, often with important consequences, but their attention to one issue means that they must ignore the others.

This context is so familiar to many policy/ politics scholars that they may be surprised if one takes Parliaments seriously. In fact, when I gave my presentation for a lectureship at Aberdeen in 2004, one audience member pretty much said ‘since parliaments are peripheral to the policy process, why are you bothering with this topic?’. I have two answers:

  1. Parliaments perform other functions – deliberative, participatory, symbolic and, most importantly, they legitimize the outputs of government. Without Parliament, the government would struggle to maintain a wider sense of public legitimacy for its decisions. Consequently, a parliament can appear, simultaneously, to be highly ineffective (in relation to scrutiny) and profoundly effective (at legitimization).
  2. The Scottish Parliament was sold as a powerful institution at the centre of a range of ‘new politics’ initiatives.

So that is the context for the rest of my talk here –

UPDATE: Questions from the audience

(1) What would you do about these weaknesses in scrutiny. Potential remedies?

I gave three main solutions: (a) lower your expectations about what can happen; (b) increase parliamentary resources (permanent staff seem like better value than elected MSPs in this context) to increase MSP incentives to engage in scrutiny; and (c) learn from other countries and decide if you want to transfer their practices. As I discuss with colleagues in a comparison with Sweden, we may not be willing to give up what we have (clear lines of accountability) to secure what they have (more cross-party cooperation).

(2) Should there be a ‘big bang’ reform of the Scottish political system to address these problems? I tried very much not to answer this question. It doesn’t seem likely to happen or to change the fundamental relationship between government and parliament.


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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

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