Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum

This is the 3000 word experimental-album post, and there is also a shorter radio-edit single for the LSE blog. I discussed these issues at my inaugural lecture and the audio is available here:

There was a no vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Almost immediately, David Cameron announced that Lord Smith of Kelvin would take charge of the process to turn broad UK party promises on further devolution into a more detailed plan. I discuss the main issues regarding that plan here, but in this post I want to focus more on the bigger picture, to link the discussion of Scottish devolution to academic work on the ‘universal’ challenges that all governments face:

  • Does anyone understand the policy process in Scotland?
  • Can anyone control or influence that process?
  • If not, can we hold them to account?
  • To what extent does the Scottish Government face the same challenges as any other?
  • Do Scottish political institutions have the capacity to address them in a distinctive way?

My aim is not to deny that Scottish politics is distinctive, but to argue that its political system, and policy process, shares the same ‘complex government’ features as any country. This may provide a useful sense of perspective after a long period of excitement about one aspect of British politics – which has produced the idea that (a) people know how the Scottish policy process would work after a yes or no vote, and (b) that major constitutional change produces a major change in policy and policymaking. I don’t think that either of those beliefs is true.

I also use the ‘will life go on?’ question, partly to be sarcastic, and partly to show that government and society have an auto-pilot function: while we have been obsessed with the referendum, 500,000 public employees in Scotland have continued delivering public policies out of the public spotlight, and citizens have continued to interact with public services.

In short, my aim is to show you the links between two separate-looking concerns:

Does anyone understand the policy process in Scotland and the UK?

You might get the impression from the debate on the referendum that one side knows how Scottish policymaking works; that if you vote yes or no, you guarantee a particular outcome or, at least, guard against a bad outcome. Yet, the policy process is too complex to for anyone understand fully – from the citizen, dipping in and out of political debate, to the policymaker trying to make a difference, and the academics, still confused after decades of study.

Instead, politicians and campaigners find ways to simplify the process enough to understand and explain, while academics like me develop a language to show why we couldn’t possibly understand the process. We focus on five elements which, on their own, show the complexity of policymaking and, combined, make us thoroughly confused:

  1. ‘Bounded rationality’ suggests that policymakers do not have the time, resources and cognitive ability to consider all information, possibilities, solutions, or consequences of their actions. Instead, they use informational shortcuts or heuristics to produce good-enough decisions. They may be ‘goal-oriented’, but also use emotional, intuitive and often unreliable ‘heuristics’ to make decisions quickly. Their attention may lurch dramatically from one issue to another, and they may draw on quick, emotional judgements to treat different social groups as deserving of government benefits or sanctions.
  2. Institutions are the rules, norms, and practices that influence political behaviour. Some are visible and widely understood – such as constitutions – and others are informal, often only understood by a small number of people. These are the rules that organisations develop to run a complex world into something understandable and manageable. Yet, different rules develop in many parts of government, or government ‘silos’, often with little reference to each other. This can produce: unpredictable outcomes when people follow often contradictory rules when they interact; a multiplicity of accountability and performance management processes which do not ‘join up’; and, a convoluted statute book, made more complex by the interaction between laws and regulations designed for devolved, UK and EU matters.
  3. Policy networks show us how policymakers deal with their ability to pay attention to only a fraction of the things for which they are responsible. We begin with the huge reach and responsibilities of governments, producing the potential for ministerial ‘overload’. Governments divide responsibilities into broad sectors and specialist subsectors, and senior policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants. ‘Policy community’ describes the relationships that often develop between the actors responsible for policy decisions and the participants, such as interest groups (and businesses, public sector organisations, and other types of government body), with which they engage. For example, civil servants seek information from groups. Or, they seek legitimacy for their policies through group ‘ownership’. Groups use their resources – based on what they provide (expertise, advice, research) and/ or who they represent (a large membership; an important profession; a high status donor or corporation) – to secure regular access to government. In some cases, the relationships between policymakers and participants endure, they ‘co-produce’ policy, and we use the term ‘governance’ to describe a messy world in which it is difficult to attribute outcomes simply to the decisions of governments. Multi-level governance describes this messy process involving the blurry boundaries between policy produced by elected policymakers and civil servants, and the influence of a wide range of governmental, non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies.
  4. Ideas are beliefs or ways of thinking. Some ways of thinking are accepted to such an extent that they are taken for granted or rarely challenged (we often call them ‘paradigms’). Others regard new ways of thinking, or new solutions to problems, and the persuasion necessary to prompt other actors to rethink their beliefs. The policy process involves actors competing to raise attention to problems and propose their favoured solutions. Not everyone has the same opportunity. Some can exploit a dominant understanding of the policy problem, while others have to work harder to challenge existing beliefs. A focus on ideas is a focus on power: to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; and, to keep some issues on the agenda at the expense of others.
  5. Context describes a policymaker’s environment. It includes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a political system’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass behaviour. It can refer to a sense of policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs – when they enter office. Or, we may identify events, either routine, such as elections, or unanticipated, including social or natural crises or major scientific breakthroughs and technological change. In each case, we consider if a policymaker’s environment is in her control and how it influences her decisions. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – examples include major demographic change, the role of technology in driving healthcare demand, climate change, extreme events, and ‘globalisation’. Yet, governments have shown that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time.

Can anyone control or influence that process? If not, can we hold them to account?

Each of these five elements could contribute to a sense of complexity. When combined, they suggest that the world of policymaking is too complex to predict or fully understand. They expose slogans such as ‘joined up’ or ‘holistic’ government as attempts to give the appearance of order to policymaking when we know that policymakers can only pay attention to a small portion of the issues for which they are responsible.

The idea of ‘complex government’ can be used to reject the idea – associated with the ‘Westminster model’ – that power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people in central government. Instead, governments develop strategies to deal with the fact that their powers are rather limited in practice.

Consequently, there is a profoundly important tension between the reality of complex government and the assertion of government control and accountability. Policymakers have to justify their activities with regard to the idea of accountability to the public via ministers and Parliament. We expect ministers to deliver on their promises, and few are brave enough to admit their limitations.

Complex government also prompts us to consider how we can hold policymakers to account if the vast majority of the population does not understand how the policy process works; if policy outcomes seem to emerge in unpredictable or uncontrollable ways, or the allegation of complexity is used to undermine popular participation or obscure accountability. The aim of political reformers, to go beyond representative government and produce more participatory forms of democracy, may solve a general sense of detachment by the political class, and aid the transparency of some aspects of policymaking, but it will not solve this bigger problem.

To what extent does the Scottish Government face the same challenges as any other?

Right now, the Scottish Government faces the same task as a large number of countries:

  1. In the aftermath of economic crisis, and reduced budgets, it has to consider how to deliver similar levels of public services – including health, education, emergency services, and housing – at lower cost.
  2. It also seeks to reduce inequalities – albeit without the policy levers that could make the biggest difference.
  3. It needs to find a balance, to address an inescapable trade-off between a degree of uniformity of national policies and local discretion. People 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.
  4. It needs to find a way to ‘join up’ its public services – to make, for example, health speak to education, social work and policing.

As in many countries, one potential solution to all four problems is the idea of ‘prevention’ or ‘early intervention’. Preventative spending’ and ‘prevention’ are terms used by many governments, and in many policy studies, to describe a broad aim to reduce public service costs (and ‘demand’) by addressing policy problems at an early stage. The argument is that 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 longstanding problems – including crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, and unemployment (and newer problems relating to climate change and anti-environmental behaviour) – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive.

Yet, as in all countries, it cannot simply make this happen, for three main reasons:

  • Inequalities are often described as ‘wicked’ problems because they seem intractable – because governments do not appear to have the means, or perhaps the ability and willingness, to solve them. For example, health inequalities could be caused largely by income inequality, which the Scottish Government would struggle to address, and the UK Government may be unwilling to address radically. Or, we have a mix of solutions, from the often-innocuous (more spending on pre-school education), to the sensitive (restricting the use of alcohol and tobacco) and the downright controversial (preventing crime before it happens).
  • We are back to the idea of complex government – to address social and economic problems at this scale requires something akin to complete central government control over policies and outcomes. Instead, governments try to find ways to cooperate with a wide range of actors to secure some of their aims while dealing with the unintended consequences of their policies.
  • No one is quite sure what ‘early intervention’ or ‘prevention’ is. It sounds intuitive but, when you get into the details and need to produce a detailed plan, ambiguity and uncertainty replace intuition and a shared understanding of what to do.

So, policymakers have a limited amount of control over this process and 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.

Do Scottish political institutions have the capacity to address them in a distinctive way?

The Scottish Government addresses this problem in two potentially-distinctive ways:

  • Policymaking culture. Many studies explore the idea of a ‘Scottish policy style’, which refers to the ways in which the Scottish Government makes policy following consultation and negotiation with pressure participants such as interest groups, local government organisations and unions
  • Administrative organisation. Many studies explore a distinctive ‘governance’ style, or a relative ability or willingness to devolve the delivery of policy to other organisations in a meaningful way. It sets a broad national strategy, the National Performance Framework, invites local bodies to produce policies consistent with it, and measures performance using broad, long term outcomes. For example, it now encourages local authorities to cooperate with a range of other bodies in the public sector (including health, enterprise, police, fire and transport), private and ‘third’ sector (mostly voluntary or charitable organisations) via established ‘Community Planning Partnerships’ (CPPs), to produce a ‘strategic vision’ for each local area.

In both cases, we usually find that the comparator is ‘Westminster’. Scotland can do things differently (at least when funding is not a problem) because it is smaller, which allows its government to develop closer relationships with key actors, and develop relatively high levels of trust in other bodies to deliver public services.

So, yes, in the context of all that I have said about governments facing the same challenges, and addressing them in similar ways, the Scottish Government has some distinctive policymaking elements.

What about the Scottish Parliament and other bodies?

Yet, consider the effect of this distinctiveness on the rest of the political system. My description of the policy process should already give the sense that it is driven primarily by government, and that parliament and ‘the people’ don’t play much of a role. What if policymaking follows its current trajectory, with more powers devolved to local authorities and a range of bodies involved in CPPs?

  1. This development has great potential to undermine traditional forms of parliamentary scrutiny. The Scottish Parliament already lacks the ability to gather information independently – it tends to rely on bodies such as the Scottish Government to provide that information. It does not get enough information from the Scottish Government about what is going on locally. Scotland lacks the top-down performance management system that we associate with the UK Government, and a greater focus on long term outcomes removes an important and regular source of information on public sector performance. Local and health authorities also push back against calls for detailed information. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability.
  2. A second consequence of devolving more power locally is interest groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. Such a shift would produce new winners and losers. The well-resourced professional groups can adapt their multi-level lobbying strategies, while the groups working on a small budget, only able to lobby the Scottish Government, will struggle.
  3. These trends may prompt a new agenda on local participatory capacity, to take on the functions performed less by these national organisations. For example, the ERS Scotland’s suggestion is that more local devolution could produce a more active local population. Even so, we still need to know more about how and why people organise. For example, local communities may organise in an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area as they arise; to engage in a small part of the policy process at a particular time. They do not have the resources to engage in a more meaningful way, compared to a Parliament and collection of established groups which maintain a constant presence and develop knowledge of the details of policies over time.


The conclusion is that, if we focus on the wider policymaking and political process, we should get a stronger sense that a Yes vote or major further devolution would not produce radical change. The idea of giving a Scottish Government the powers to make radical changes to inequalities, public services, and outcomes, should take second stage to the idea that all governments are constrained by a lack of resources to make a quick and fundamental difference to the economy and society. No-one really understands the policy process, and no-one is in the position to control it. Rather, people pay attention to a small number of issues, and work with a large number of other people to negotiate some changes in some areas. This process involves major trade-offs, and the knowledge that attention to a small number of priorities means ignoring the rest.

So, too, should we be sceptical about the idea of a new era of popular participation, sweeping the nation and changing the way we do politics in Scotland. Even the Scottish Parliament struggles to know what happens in the Scottish Government and beyond. Even well-resourced interest groups struggle to keep track of an increasingly devolved system. So, what chance would citizens have if they did not devote their whole lives to politics? We should encourage popular participation, as the right thing to do, but without creating false expectations about the results.

Final note: in the Q&A I mention the Gilmore Girls. To follow up the reference,  see


Filed under agenda setting, ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

4 responses to “Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum

  1. Pingback: Public Lecture: ‘Will life go on after the Scottish Independence referendum?’ | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  3. Pingback: The effect of constitutional change on politics and policymaking #POLU9SP | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  4. Pingback: The future of Scotland in the UK: does the remarkable popularity of the SNP make independence inevitable (version 2)? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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