Preventative Spending and the ‘Scottish Policy Style’

‘Preventative spending’ and ‘prevention’ describe a broad aim to reduce public service costs (and ‘demand’) by addressing policy problems at an early stage; too much government spending is devoted to services to address severe social problems at a late stage. The aim is for governments to address a wide range of problems – related to crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, unemployment (and, most recently, anti-environmental behaviour) – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive. This aim may be timeless, and relate to previous policies directed at identifying the root causes of social problems – such as poverty, social exclusion, and poor accommodation. It has also received more recent attention during an ‘age of austerity’ in which governments seek to reduce spending and/ or redirect spending to other areas (to address key demographic shifts such as an ageing population, which affect service demand in other areas).

Prevention has some potential to generate widespread consensus – to bring together groups on the ‘left’, seeking to reduce poverty, and groups on the ‘right’, seeking to reduce economic inactivity and the costs of public services. It can also be linked to other ‘valence’ issues, such as (a) the need for ‘joined up’ or ‘holistic’ government in which we foster cooperation between, and secure a common aim for, departments, public bodies and stakeholders at several levels of government; and, (b) a shift from short, often misleading, targets as proxies for policy aims, to more meaningful long term outcomes.

Our aim is to examine how that agenda (a) plays out in Scotland, which has developed its own ‘policy style’; and (b) how it overlaps with current debates on constitutional change. Compared to the other ESRC Scotland projects, our topic is less sensitive to a changing constitution – the preventative spending agenda has already begun. However, it is not immune to that wider debate: more devolution, or independence, would extend Scottish Government responsibilities in relevant fields such as social security and welfare policy; and, the case can be made for independence to foster joined up government (or, reduce overlaps in government responsibilities for cross-cutting issues).

A Scottish Government Approach to ‘Universal’ Issues?

Any country’s prevention agenda would face common obstacles:

Defining and ‘Owning’ the Problem. Prevention is a vague term associated with many different aims (such as to reduce service costs or increase quality of life in a population). It is difficult to know what prevention policy would look like and how to measure its success in a meaningful way (particularly since government policy may be one of multiple causes of shifts in outcomes such as inequality). Its ability to gather wide support is a double-edged sword, since it brings together people with very different aims (and some groups will have unrealistic aims). One could have ostensibly the same policy for decades, but pursued with different choices, about the level and type of intervention, and about the main driver (such as reducing inequality or long term costs). This vagueness makes it difficult to secure stakeholder ‘ownership’ – or their support may only be for particular aspects of policy.

Shifting the Balance of Power. Prevention may require a challenge to existing services, and produce opposition from groups with reasonable concerns. It may require some governments to give up their powers unilaterally, such as local authorities when they accept binding shared aims with unelected bodies, or central governments devolving powers in a meaningful way.

Short term Costs versus Long Term Gainsundermines Long Term Commitment? A shift in resources may be designed to produce better outcomes over decades, which may be difficult to measure, at the risk of highly visible costs in the short term. These costs may be financial (invest for the long term in the same way you would invest in capital) and/ or political (when existing visible services are sacrificed for longer term aims). A visible party political imperative (parties competing for office every 5 years may seek short term measures of success or failure) may combine with visible effects on public services (and their employees) and the less visible issues such as intergenerational equality, to disrupt long term policies.

Normative. In some areas, early intervention may be criticised as excessive intervention (such as in tobacco and alcohol control – or the extreme example of preventative detention).

Wicked. We are dealing with areas that often seem intractable, or too big/ connected to be amenable to a simple/ workable solution.

Policy Transfer and Learning. What works in one issue or place may not work in another.

Policymaking. Any policy is subject to the usual constraints regarding uncertainty (for example, about how policy will influence social behaviour), the potential for unintended consequences, and the need for sustained leadership and partnership.

The Scottish Government may address these issues using a ‘Scottish Policy Style’, regarding:

  1. The way in which it works with stakeholders to produce common policy aims.
  2. The way in which it seeks to implement policy.

To some extent, it has a reputation for closer cooperation with stakeholders and building policy delivery on trust in implementing bodies (when compared to the UK Government). Its consultation approach may be used to gather information and foster group ‘ownership’. Its approach to implementation may be suited to a shift from short term targets to long term outcomes. It may continue to exploit advantages in relation to its size, with smaller government departments more able to make links across government, and senior policymakers more able to from personal networks with members of key stakeholder and delivery bodies. On the other hand, reputations can be misleading and based on snapshots in time. Early cooperation may have been based on a ‘honeymoon’ period of devolution and a favourable economic context. Further, not all Scottish Governments have pursued ‘bottom up’ and long term approaches to policy implementation.

Emily St Denny (@EmilyStDenny) and I are interested in how these issues play out in practice, examining:

  • The academic literature on preventative spending in theory and practice
  • Written statements on prevention in Scotland – reports by the Scottish Government, Scottish Parliament and related bodies such as the Improvement Service and CIPFA
  • Interviews with practitioners – Government, Parliament, local government, NHS.

A lot of this work is part of a larger collaboration with colleagues in the ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, including:

  • with Michael Keating and Malcolm Harvey (@MalcH) at Aberdeen to link these issues to broader, comparative, studies of policymaking, examining the potential for learning from other, relevant, political systems and policies.
  • with the three Davids in Economics (Bell, Comerford, Eiser) at Stirling to examine how the progress of such policies can be tracked using outcome measures, and how meaningful it is to say that government policy helped cause those outcomes.
  • with Kirstein Rummery (@KirsteinRummery) and Craig McAngus (@craigmcangus) to examine particular aspects of inequality and unequal outcomes in areas such as age and gender


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics

2 responses to “Preventative Spending and the ‘Scottish Policy Style’

  1. Pingback: Would an Independent Scotland Make Policy Differently? | Paul Cairney: Politics and Policy

  2. Pingback: What’s preventing preventative policy? | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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