Daily Archives: January 8, 2014

Would an Independent Scotland Make Policy Differently?

This appears on the ESRC website http://futureukandscotland.ac.uk/blog/would-independent-scotland-make-policy-differently

Any debate about the future of Scottish policy is incomplete without a focus on its policy-making. Governments don’t just make policy choices in isolation. We expect them to be ‘consultative’ and ‘cooperative’ when they make and implement policy.  This emphasis on a more open and cooperative ‘policy style’ was a feature of ‘new politics’ discussions in the run up to devolution, led by bodies such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention and Consultative Steering Group. New Scottish institutions were to become a hub for new forms of participation, basing policy choices on meaningful consultation with a wide range of people and groups, and rejecting exclusive consultation with the ‘usual suspects’. This attitude would extend to policy delivery. Rather than imposing policy from the ‘top down’, they would form meaningful partnerships with bodies such as local authorities. Advocates for ‘new Scottish politics’ often contrasted this style with ‘old Westminster’ and the UK Government’s (misleading) reputation for rejecting consultation with interest groups and imposing policy from the ‘top down’.

The evidence suggests that the Scottish Government generally lives up to this ‘new politics’ aim. It works with voluntary groups, unions, professional bodies and local and health authorities to produce policy aims. Its cooperative approach allows it to gather information and foster group support for policy. This approach extends to implementation, with the Scottish Government often willing to produce broad strategies and trust bodies such as local authorities to meet its aims. For example, it now negotiates Single Outcome Agreements with local authorities, which focus on progress towards long term improvements in the quality of life in local communities. In turn, local authorities work with a wide range of bodies in the public, voluntary and private sector to produce shared aims relevant to their local areas. SOAs mark a symbolic shift away from top-down policymaking, in which local authorities and other bodies are punished if they do not meet short term targets, towards the production of shared aims and cooperation.

In this context, our first aim is to examine the extent to which this consultative and cooperative policy style is a feature of government in smaller countries. The evidence so far suggests that, in Scotland, senior policymakers are more able than their UK counterparts to (a) form personal relationships with key members of interest groups and public service delivery bodies, and (b) make links across government departments. They can use their networks to coordinate policy and produce shared aims across government. This ability may result from the size of government and the size of ministerial responsibilities. Under Scottish independence, the latter would expand into new areas such as economic policy and its coordination task would be more complicated, but its ability to maintain networks within a relatively small population could remain.

Our second aim is measure the effect of this distinctive policy style on policy outcomes. So far, since devolution, there is more evidence of distinctive policy choices in Scotland than distinctive policy outcomes. It is difficult to identify the success of Scottish policies which have diverged from the rest of the UK. It is also difficult to say, unequivocally, that those outcomes would not have happened without devolution. This difficulty is compounded by the political nature of policy evaluation – political parties, in particular, engage in constant debate about the success or failure of government policy. This tension is heightened during the independence debate, which brings in new arguments linking success and failure to the current devolution settlement. In particular, policy failure or slow progress is accompanied by arguments about the futility of further devolution versus arguments that devolution has not gone far enough (see for example, the latest evidence on Scottish education policy).

We explore these issues by examining ‘prevention’ policy. The broad aim of government is to reduce the ‘demand’ for public services 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, and unemployment  – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive. We explore the extent to which this broad aim can be tackled well by a Scottish Government committed to consultation and cooperation across government, to produce long term and shared goals. We then consider the potential effect of more devolution, or independence, which would extend Scottish Government responsibilities in relevant fields such as social security and welfare policy, and reduce overlaps by placing responsibility in one national government.

For more details on prevention and our research team, see https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/preventative-spending-and-the-scottish-policy-style/

See also: Can a Policy Fail and Succeed at the Same Time?

Scottish Independence: Should You Use the Powers You Have Before You Ask For More?


Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, public policy, Scottish politics

What is Policy?

what is policy

(you can stream the podcast here or right click and save this link)

The first thing we do when studying public policy is to try to define it – as, for example, the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes. This sort of definition produces more questions:

  • Does ‘government action’ include what policymakers say they will do as well as what they actually do? An unfulfilled promise may not always seem like policy.
  • Does it include the effects of a decision as well as the decision itself? A policy outcome may not resemble the initial policy aims.
  • What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Many individuals, groups and organisations influence policy and help carry it out.
  • Does public policy include what policymakers do not do. Policy is about power, which is often exercised to keep important issues off the public, media and government agenda.

The second thing we do is point to the vast scale of government, which is too big to be understood without some simplifying concepts and theories. It is also too big to be managed. We soon learn that the vast majority of policymaking takes place in the absence of meaningful public attention. The ‘public’ simply does not have the time to pay attention to government. Even when it pays attention to some issues, the debate is simplified and does not give a good account of the complicated nature of policy problems.

We also learn that government is too big to be managed by elected policymakers. Instead, they divide government into manageable units and devolve almost all decisions to bureaucrats and organisations (including ‘street level’).  They are responsible for government, but they simply do not have the time to pay attention to anything but a tiny proportion.

So, a big part of public policy is about what happens when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name. That’s what makes it seem so messed up and so interesting at the same time.

It’s also what makes policy studies look so weird. We often reject a focus on high-profile elected policymakers, because we know that the action takes place elsewhere. We often focus on the day-to-day practices of organisations far removed from the ‘top’ or the ‘centre’. We ‘zoom in’ and ‘zoom out’ to gain several perspectives on the same thing. We spend a lot of time gnashing our teeth about how you can identify and measure policy change (still, no-one has cracked this one) and compare it with the past and the experience of other countries. We try to come up with ways to demonstrate that inaction is often more significant than action. When you ask us a question, your eyes will glaze over while we try to explain, ‘well, that’s really 12 questions’. We come up with wacky names to describe policymaking and bristle if you call it ‘jargon’. It’s because policymaking is complicated and it takes skill, and some useful concepts, to make it look simple.

To read more, see: Policy Concepts in 1000 words

box 2.1 UPP


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, public policy, UK politics and policy