Monthly Archives: January 2014

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

A key response to the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence is that many of its policy aims could be achieved now. The strongest version of this argument is that the SNP is being cynical by making some policy commitments and refusing to carry them out now before the referendum vote – and the Better Together campaign has reinforced this argument with a recent poll on childcare . This line reinforces a longer term argument – that we should not consider giving Scottish Governments more powers when they are not using the ones they have already. It has become the reverse of the SNP’s longstanding argument: since we’re doing this well now, imagine how well we’d do with more powers.

Behind the campaign bickering lies an important point for the public perception of this debate: relatively few people know enough about devolution to tell you what responsibilities the Scottish Government already has and how it has used them. Few people know, for example, how many MSPs there are , the difference between the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament , what the Scottish Government gets up to , and quite a low number could give you a definitive answer about who is responsible for issues such as health , education , and unemployment benefit .

Consequently, the statement ‘use the powers you have’ is difficult for most people to interrogate. This is a doubly-difficult issue because the statement could conflate two points: (1) you have not used your powers; (2) you have not used them effectively. The first point does not seem to stand up to scrutiny if we look at the experience of devolution. Even if we just look at the highest profile examples  , there is a decent list of Scottish Government/ Parliament activity and outputs based on devolved powers (which include areas such as health, education, local government and justice). In order of parliamentary session, we can identify:

  • The review of Scottish higher education which reformed tuition fee funding and led to the abolition of student fees, as fees rose to £9000 in England.
  • The commitment to ‘free personal care’ for older people
  • The Scottish Government taking the lead on mental health law reform in areas such as capacity and compulsory treatment
  • The resolution of tensions between unions, local authorities and government on teacher pay and conditions, and reform of the curriculum
  • The removal of Scotland’s NHS ‘internal market’ while it was being expanded in England
  • The introduction of STV for local elections
  • The ban on smoking in public places
  • The pursuit of alcohol control, including legislation to introduce a minimum unit price
  • The pursuit of renewable energy policy and postponement or rejection of nuclear power
  • The pursuit of new ways of working with bodies such as local authorities

The difficulty with simply producing a list is that lots of people do not approve of the decisions made by the Scottish Government. Or, they argue that these actions have had limited or unintended effects (and they might add ‘given the money the Scottish Government threw at them’). For example, many have jumped upon the LSE blog  which suggests that devolution has not improved inequality of outcomes in Scottish schools. This allows critics of devolution to use argument (2) you may have used your powers, but you have not used them effectively.

It is worth being sceptical about these claims in general because the evaluation of success and failure is highly political . It is particularly easy to say that a series of Scottish governments has failed because all governments fail . There is also a specific problem in Scotland just now: these claims are now becoming intertwined with people’s attitudes and arguments about devolution and independence.  Following many of these evaluations of performance is the sentence ‘and therefore you should/ shouldn’t have independence’, when the more honest person would say ‘I support/ don’t support independence and therefore here is my evaluation’.

It is also worth thinking about what this sort of argument really amounts to. It is legitimate to say that constitutional change does not solve policy problems (of course it doesn’t), but the argument that devolution has failed and that independence would make things better/ worse seems like a cynical attempt to exploit people’s lack of knowledge of devolution and lack of appreciation about the political nature of evaluation.


Let’s take the example of childcare, since it now represents a key focus of both campaigns and has become a beacon for the ‘we can do more’ versus the ‘you have the powers/ use your powers now’ arguments. The relevant part of Scotland’s Future is p194:

In an independent Scotland, this Government would develop a universal system of high quality early learning and childcare for children from the age of one to when they enter school. We will:

  • in our first budget: provide 600 hours of childcare to around  half of Scotland’s two year olds. Those whose parents  receive working tax credit or child tax credit will benefit
  • by the end of the first Parliament: ensure that all three and four year olds and vulnerable two year olds will be entitled to 1,140 hours of childcare a year (the same amount of time as children spend in primary school)
  • by the end of the second Parliament: ensure that all children  from one to school age will be entitled to 1,140 hours of childcare per year

This transformational change to childcare in Scotland will allow parents, in particular women, to choose to work without worrying about the cost of looking after their children. With independence the benefits of their work – in economic growth and tax revenues – will stay in Scotland, contributing to meeting the cost of this childcare provision.

Just to annoy you, I’m going to say that both sides have a point. The BT campaign is right to say that this agenda can be pursued now, and the SNP would not fully disagree. The ‘600 hours’ commitment is currently being pursued in the Children and Young People Bill going through the Scottish Parliament. It would also be possible to fund a lot of the expansion from a devolved budget, provided the Scottish Government was prepared to take the money from other programmes (the figure being bandied around is £1.2b). In that sense, it is a simple question of priorities. The only problem so far is that you can’t see the general agreement among most parties (most think expanding childcare is a good thing) for all the nitpicking about the details. The ‘use your powers now’ argument also seems, at times, to be disingenuous since it refers largely to what is going on already (the Scottish Government is using its powers now) than the longer term vision.

The bigger question is how to secure ‘transformative’ childcare provision. This is where the constitutional argument plays a greater part, since the SNP line is that they want to fund childcare expansion by borrowing to invest in facilities and training, then recoup the money in more taxes as more people go to work. This is a constitutional argument based on calling for more tax powers. Other Yes supporters argue for a reduction on spending on defence, to be used for childcare (the most recent is here). That is also a constitutional argument, based on securing all powers to decide which ones to fund more or less.

You may not like these arguments. You may think that these aims are unrealistic or simply misguided. However, these are the sorts of ‘more powers’ arguments that are not addressed simply with ‘use the powers you have’.


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

Can a Policy Fail and Succeed at the Same Time?

In Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure, I argue that evaluation is party political. Parties compete to describe policies as successes or failures based on their beliefs and their selective use of evidence. There is often a lot of room for debate because the aims of policymakers are not always clear. In this post, I argue that this room still exists even if a policymaker’s aims appear to be clear. The complication is that a policy aim consists of an explicit statement of intent plus an often-implicit set of assumptions about what that statement of intent means in practice. This complication is exploited by parties in the same way as they exploit ambiguities and their selective use of evidence.

Let’s take the example of class sizes in Scottish schools, partly because it is often highlighted by opposition parties as a clear example of policy failure. The SNP manifesto 2007 (p52) seems crystal clear:

We will reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to eighteen pupils or less (sic)

Further, the SNP Scottish Government did not appear to fulfil the spirit of its commitment. There is some wiggle room because it does not say all classes or set a deadline, but it is reasonable to assume that the pledge refers to extensive progress by 2011 (the end of the parliamentary session). Indeed, the lack of progress was seized upon by opposition parties, who seemed to be partly responsible for the removal of the Education Secretary from her post in 2009.  The issue arose again at the end of 2013 when average class sizes appeared to be higher than when the pledge was made.

My magic trick will be to persuade you that, in an important way, the reduction of class sizes was not the SNP’s aim. What I mean is this:

  1. Each policy aim is part of a wider set of aims which may undermine rather than reinforce each other. In general, for example, spending on one aim comes at the expense of another. In this specific case, another SNP aim was to promote a new relationship with local authorities. It sought to set an overall national strategy and fund programmes via local authorities, but not impose policy outputs or outcomes on implementing bodies. Those two aims could be compatible: the Scottish Government could persuade local authorities to share its aims and spend money on achieving them. Or, they could be contradictory, forcing the Scottish Government to pursue one aim at the expense of another: either imposing policy on local authorities, or accepting the partial loss of one aim to secure a particular relationship with local authorities.
  2. Class sizes are not aims in themselves. Instead, they are means to an end, or headline-grabbing proxy measures for performance. The broader aim is to improve learning and/ or education attainment (and to address learning-based inequalities). Further, local authorities may have their own ideas about how to make this happen, perhaps by spending their ‘class size’ money on a different project with the same broader aim (I have not made up this point – a lot of teaching professionals are not keen on these targets). Again, the Scottish Government has a choice: impose their own aim or trust some local authorities to do things their own way – which might produce a lack of implementation of a specific aim but the pursuit of a broader one.
  3. The assumption is always that nothing will go wrong between the promise and the action. Yet, things almost-always go wrong because policy outcomes are often out of the control of policymakers. We like to pretend that governments are infallible so that we can hold them responsible and blame them for being fallible.

Consequently, a key question about policy success is this: how far would you go to achieve it in each case?  Would you sacrifice one aim for another? How do you prioritise a large set of aims which may not be compatible with each other? Would you accept the unintended consequences of a too-rigid attachment to a policy aim? Or, would you set a broad strategy and accept that implementing authorities should have considerable say in how to carry it out?

In this sense, it is possible to succeed and fail simultaneously – either by successfully achieving a narrow policy aim but with unintended consequences, or by accepting a level of defeat for the greater good.*

*Or, I suppose, if you are not of the bright-side persuasion, you can fail and fail.

Further Reading:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Success and Failure (Evaluation)

How Big is the Incentive for Politicians to Look Dishonest or Stupid?

Further Reading: class sizes

Class sizes


Filed under public policy, Scottish politics

What We Think We Know About Thatcher

I am struck by the sense that we know all this about Thatcher anyway. So, this week, we knew that the Thatcher government hid the scale of proposed coal closures and rejected plans to reduce Scottish pubic expenditure in a highly public and drastic way. Yet, what we are learning, but by bit, is that the Thatcher government is not living up to its majoritarian, top-down, government-knows-best, there is no alternative, lady’s not for turning image. Instead, we are seeing more examples in which the Thatcher government feared the consequences of its actions and was not prepared to simply pick fights with weaker opponents. It recognised the limits to its powers and sought to adapt. This is just as relevant now as it was back then. The UK has this image in which power is centralised in the hands of a few powerful people, responsible for responsible government. The reality is much more complicated.

For more on this see:

Thatcher’s Letter Says it Better

Policy and Policymaking in the UK – chapter 1 draft 1

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Filed under public policy, UK politics and policy

How Far Should You Go to Make Sure a Policy is Delivered?

It is common for people to state that politicians are dishonest because they do not deliver on their promises. It is also common for people to state that policymakers are naïve, since they introduce policies without thinking through their consequences. In this post, let’s give them more credit and consider other reasons for this disconnect between the things policymakers say, what they do, and what the outcomes are:

Who Wants to Look Powerless? A particular feature of Westminster systems, in which power appears to be concentrated at the centre, is that we expect ministers to be able to deliver on their promises. Yet, they can only deliver the impetus for policy change, such as the legislation and/or resources to devote to a solution. In almost all cases, ministers do not have the time or cognitive ability to see a policy solution through from beginning to end (partly because there isn’t a beginning and end). I suppose it’s possible that some ministers could try to argue that their powers are limited, but they would be more likely to be portrayed as weak than honest. Compared to the UK, the current Scottish Government is often quite good at stressing its desire to set a broad strategy and accept the legitimacy of bodies such as local authorities to go their own way. However, it still tends to be criticised by opposition parties as weak and, in some cases, as a government that can’t deliver on its promises. This portrayal would be supercharged at the UK level built on the ‘government knows best’ tradition.

Who Wants to Say How Far They Would Go to Make Sure a Policy is Delivered? Policies generally produce winners and losers. More money spent on one public service or social group generally means less money spent on another. We don’t see it often because policy decisions and areas seem compartmentalised – more money on the NHS seems like a good thing because we’re not sure about what service gets less as a result. There is also little incentive for governments to raise these ‘greater good’ comparisons or back them up in any meaningful way (in fact, departmental ministers compete with each other for funds, and few actors in government are employed to assess the overall picture). Nor is there an incentive for individual ministers to show how they count up the value of the pros and cons of a policy. Perhaps ideally, we would want them to say, for example*:

  • How many people in poverty they would accept in the short term to allow long term benefit and employment reform.
  • How many people they would be prepared to detain inappropriately under the Mental Health Act to protect how many people in the population.
  • The extent to which they are prepared to suspend the rights of, or provide inappropriate treatment to, immigrants to satisfy domestic demands for immigration control.
  • The extent to which the police can use excessive physical force to control the population and particular social groups within it.
  • The number of sex education and related websites they are prepared to see blocked unintentionally to ensure the intentional block of sites hosting pornography.

In other words, many policy aims will require hard choices about how far we want to go to carry them out. Should we accept a policy’s limited application/success to safeguard something else (like human rights) or limit costs, or just plough on to ensure success in terms of our original aims? Should we try to articulate in advance our levels of tolerance of unintended consequences? Again, it would be remarkably open and honest, but it is difficult to see the incentive for ministers to wonder aloud about the consequences of their aims or explicitly accept the pain of some for the gain of others.

The same can be said for advocates of particular policies. It is rare for people to advocate the pursuit of one policy at the expense of another (bar discussions of funding when, say, people want to replace the funding of nuclear weapons with public services). So, we tend to have stilted conversations: we say what we want but not what how far we are willing to go or what we would be willing to give up. In that sense, we are just as dishonest and stupid as elected policymakers.

*it was very hard to come up with non-judgmental examples, so note the political nature of my examples. Other examples, from a libertarian viewpoint, could include: how many home fires are you willing to accept when you introduce a ban on smoking in public places? How many ‘sensible’ drinkers would you punish to protect ‘problem’ drinkers?


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, UK politics and policy, Uncategorized