Scottish Independence: Will Anything Really Change?

Some issues are territorial. Others are universal.

I like to tell people that very little will change after an event such as an election or referendum. While we focus on the exciting world of party politics, elections, campaigns and a referendum, the humdrum world of policymaking goes on, often unnoticed. Indeed, one partly causes the other: our attention to a small number of high profile people allows a large number of people to carry on, delivering public policy, out of the spotlight. Some issues receive huge amounts of attention, and policy might change if there is a problem that can be solved and the solution is not too expensive or controversial. Others receive almost no attention – yet, life goes on, and policy is often delivered in much the same way as in the past. When we elect governments, or choose a completely new kind of government, we expect ministers to solve problems for us. Yet, they can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of the things for which they are responsible. No individual, or small group of people at the heart of government, has the ability to understand or control the complex government of which it is in charge. In Scotland, regardless of a Yes or No vote, one of those key issues is about how to organise, deliver and reform public services. It demonstrates two main problems that you find in any study of government and policymaking. First, there is an inescapable trade-off between a desire to harmonise national policies and to encourage local discretion. Policymakers and policy participants understand this problem in different ways; some bemoan the ‘fragmentation’ of public services and the potential for a ‘postcode lottery’, while others identify more positive notions of flexible government, the potential for innovation, and the value of ‘community-led’ policies or individualised, ‘co-produced’, services. Second, policymakers have a limited amount of control over this trade-off. They do not simply choose a level of fragmentation. Instead, they face the same problems as any government: the ability to pay attention to only a small proportion of issues, or to a small proportion of public service activity; the tendency for problems to be processed in government ‘silos’ (by one part of government, not communicating well with others); the potential for policymakers, in different departments or levels of government, to understand and address the policy problem in very different ways; and, ‘complexity’, which suggests that policy outcomes often ‘emerge’ from local action in the absence of central control. These problems can only be addressed in a limited way by government strategies based on: the use of accountability and performance measures; the encouragement of learning and cooperation between public bodies; and, the development of a professional culture in which many people are committed to the same policy approach. In our new paper, my colleagues Emily St Denny, Siabhainn Russell and I look at how the Scottish Government addresses these ‘universal’ problems. We describe its reputation for making policy in a distinctive way; its reputation for pursuing a consultative and cooperative style when it makes and implements policy. It works with a wide range of bodies to build support for its policy aims. Its policy delivery involves a broad national strategy combined with a commitment to trust bodies such as local authorities to meet its aims. 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. This approach could help address problems associated with ‘silos’, ‘ambiguity’ and local discretion, if policy is ‘co-produced’ and ‘owned’ by national and local bodies. On the other hand, the ‘Scottish Approach’ implies a decision to encourage discretion, the production of a meaningful degree of local policymaking, and perhaps even the acceptance that some policies may ‘emerge’ in the absence of central direction and traditional accountability measures. To show how complicated government is, we select problems and strategies that seem more likely to exacerbate these ‘universal’ problems more than others. We outline two policy areas, on prevention and transition, which cut across many government departments, involve many levels of government (local, Scottish, UK, and perhaps EU) and types of government (including education, social work, health and police authorities), and seem particularly difficult to define and manage. In both cases, the problem is not one of disagreement. In fact, there is a widespread commitment to both issues, and to achieve a ‘decisive shift to prevention’ in particular. Rather, the problem is often one of ambiguity – for example, people are not quite sure what prevention means in practice, when applied to different kinds of policy problem – or ‘fragmentation’, when a range of public bodies have to work together to produce more specific aims and objectives. These ‘universal’ points are important when we consider Scottish policymaking in the context of constitutional change: a shift of policymaking responsibility from the UK to Scotland may reduce one aspect of complex government – such as the link between the social security system (currently reserved to the UK) and public services – but many would still remain. In cases such as prevention, Scottish independence could have an impact on budget and policy priorities. It would not, however, solve the problem of how to define and address a cross-cutting and ambiguous problem. That problem would remain, and life would go on regardless of a Yes and No vote. The paper is here: Cairney Russell St Denny ECPR 19.8.14


Filed under public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics

4 responses to “Scottish Independence: Will Anything Really Change?

  1. I suspect Glasow for one would dispute that the Scottish Government trusts them, indeed the whole issue of local governance has forced COSLA to come up with a very imaginative solution to try to avoid its disintegration.
    And a single chamber parliament, really? back to 1312.

  2. Pingback: Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  3. Pingback: British Politics and Policy at LSE – The Scottish political system and policy process share the same ‘complex government’ features as any country

  4. Pingback: Does anyone know what the UK Government’s mental health policy is? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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