Monthly Archives: June 2015

The ‘Scottish approach’ to policy and policymaking

This is an introduction to the Open Access journal article – “The ‘Scottish approach’ to policy and policymaking: what issues are territorial and what are universal?” by Paul Cairney, Siabhainn Russell, and Emily St Denny, in Policy and Politics.

The ‘Scottish approach’ refers to the Scottish Government’s reputation for pursuing a consultative and cooperative style when it makes and implements policy in devolved areas (including health, education, local government and justice). It works with voluntary groups, unions, professional bodies, the private sector and local and health authorities to gather information and foster support for its policy aims. This approach extends to policy delivery, with the Scottish Government willing to produce a broad national strategy and series of priorities – underpinned by the ‘National Performance Framework’ – and 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 – in ‘Community Planning Partnerships’ – to produce shared aims relevant to their local areas. ‘Single Outcome Agreements’ mark a symbolic shift away from ‘topdown’ implementation, in which local authorities and other bodies are punished if they do not meet short-term targets, towards the production of longer-term shared aims and cooperation.

Yet, however distinctive a government’s approach may be, its actions are constrained by factors faced by all governments. For example, 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, 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 article, my colleagues Emily St Denny, Siabhainn Russell and I look at how the Scottish Government addresses these ‘universal’ problems. We describe the ‘Scottish approach’ and wonder if it could help address problems associated with ‘silos’, ‘ambiguity’ and local discretion, if policy is ‘co-produced’ and ‘owned’ by national and local bodies. Or, if 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, it may create problems of its own.

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 partisan 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, further devolution 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.

The article can be accessed here: http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/pap/pre-prints/content-EvP_060

Direct access to the full article is here: Cairney Russell St Denny 2015 P&P Scottish approach

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

Two ways to describe the Scottish Government’s new national conversation

This week, the Scottish Government launched a new national discussion. Unlike in 2007, it is not a vehicle to promote Scottish independence. Rather, it is a way to ask people what the Scottish Government should be doing with the new powers that it will receive under the Scotland Act 2015. Does further devolution allow it to better promote both a ‘strong competitive economy and a fairer, more equal society’? The launch document lists some of the aims it wants to promote, including a reduction in gender inequality, as well as new ways to address the link between poverty and poorer outcomes relating to physical and mental health, education attainment and crime. If you are not the cynical sort, it is an uplifting read, outlining progress since devolution and a range of aspirations consistent with the idea that the Scottish population would entertain social democracy if given the chance. Or, as Kirstein Rummery puts it, ‘Scotland has long maintained that it is different and fairer to the rest of the UK … now it has the means to prove it’.

There are two, equally plausible, ways to describe this discussion.

The first, articulated by commentators such as Kevin McKenna and David Torrance, is that the discussion is primarily a cynical exercise designed to kill time and avoid the big decisions – including major public service reforms and tax rises – that would help make Scotland fairer but its government less popular. We know what the Scottish Government needs to do, and it is time that they stopped talking and started doing. Instead, they are putting things off until at least the next Scottish Parliament election.

The second, articulated by the Scottish Government, is that the talking is the most important part of the doing. The way we make policy matters. It’s time to stop just making decisions for people or, at least, first ask them what we should do. It’s time to stop making policy from the top down. Let’s involve people and communities in policymaking, make the big decisions together, then invite local communities to make sense of broad aims in specific areas. That way, some of the decisions may be controversial, but you can demonstrate that you listened to people’s concerns, responded to their suggestions, and made sure that plenty of people are behind you.

Somewhere in between those positions you have people like me, who remain optimistic, but want to talk through the problems before getting too excited. Here is my top three.

First, the new devolution settlement, produced after ‘negotiations’ between elected politicians and government departments, is a horrible mess. I genuinely don’t understand the settlement or know what the Scottish Government can do with it.

Second, anyone who tells you that public sector reform makes complex government simpler and saves you money is selling you snake oil. Instead, it’s a long term investment for the future, at a time when the government’s main driver is to spend less to balance the books.

Third, we have not resolved the central/ local question. Instead, this discussion should reinvigorate a debate about how national we want policy to be, to ensure uniform entitlement to benefits and services, and how local it should be, to allow governments to tailor policies to local needs. We want both, but we shouldn’t pretend that life is that simple or that the dichotomy is false.

At the end of the day, my gut tells me that the Scottish Government will try to make a difference but will start with the low hanging fruit. Some modest reforms, addressing the hot button topics like the ‘bedroom tax’, and based on trying to see the system through a service user’s eyes, can make a genuine difference and help maintain the SNP’s reputation for governing competence. It will not, however, produce the fundamental change – or genuinely redistributive policy – that some might associate with a ‘fairer Scotland’.

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Two myths about the politics of inequality in Scotland

The first obvious myth about Scotland is that it is a land of milk and honey inhabited by a left-wing population that demands equality at all costs – or, even, that its financial advantage combines with consistently social democratic policies to reduce socio-economic inequalities to a level far below the rest of the UK.

In fact, Scotland’s social attitudes are more subtly left-wing, its devolved policies often diverge more in headline than substance, and – crucially – its record on inequalities does not match the rhetoric, of a social democratic Scotland, that we heard so often during the referendum campaign. For example, the Christie Commission, which set the Scottish Government’s new inequality agenda in 2011, stated that:

on most key measures social and economic inequalities have remained unchanged or become more pronounced … This country is a paradoxical tapestry of rich resources, inventive humanity, gross inequalities, and persistent levels of poor health and deprivation … In education, the gap between the bottom 20 per cent and the average in learning outcomes has not changed at all since devolution. At the same time, the gap in healthy life expectancy between the 20 per cent most deprived and the 20 per cent least deprived areas has increased from 8 to 13.5 years and the percentage of life lived with poor health has increased from 12 to 15 per cent since devolution. The link between deprivation and the likelihood of being a victim of crime has also become stronger.

This set of problems receives only sporadic political attention, but there is some potential for a lack of progress on inequalities to frame the next Scottish Parliament election (if the constitutional question does not continue to dominate).

For example, high levels of inequality in school educational attainment, linked to income and poverty, and discussed at length by Dani Garavelli, have prompted Mandy Rhodes to argue that ‘Scotland’s record on closing the attainment gap is all but failing’, others to argue that ‘Scotland’s educational apartheid’ is ‘is Scotland’s greatest national disgrace’ (Alex Massie) that ‘shames the nation’ (Kevin McKenna), and John McDermott (backed by evidence from Lucy Hunter Blackburn) to argue that these inequalities are reinforced by Scotland’s free University tuition policy. The middle classes are more likely to do better at school, go to University, and leave with no debt than their working class peers. In other words, the claim is that the Scottish Government is either failing to solve the problem of inequality or making it worse – a charge that would be dynamite if the constitution did not dominate political attention so consistently for so long.*

Yet, this conclusion has produced a second, equally problematic, myth: our obsession with Scottish independence has set back the inequalities agenda for years. This story has two main elements. First, the SNP government has taken its eye off the ball because it has been able to entertain its independence obsession, at the cost of paying attention to substantive social policy, without having to worry about the effect of its governing record on its popularity: inequality has worsened but its position remains strong while it can blame Westminster for any problem. Second, there is a simple solution to educational and other inequalities in Scotland – we just need to be driven by the evidence of success (for example, in other countries) and find the political will and leadership necessary to make tough decisions and stick to them.

Both of these points can be dismissed easily. First, maybe we don’t pay much attention to relevant policies, but the Scottish Government and Parliament do. In fact, there is unusually high agreement between parties on the need for the ‘decisive shift to prevention’ prompted by the Christie Commission, accepted wholeheartedly in government, and overseen by the Finance Committee. Further, when people do pay attention – when there is party political electoral competition and public attention to policy – it undermines long term policy strategies. Bursts of attention to political issues tend to produce rushed solutions to the wrong problem – more money goes to acute hospital care to reduce waiting times or to local authorities to boost teacher numbers and reduce class sizes, taking money away from the policies designed to reduce inequalities in the long term.

Second, the key problem that we need to face, if we want to go beyond simply shaming the nation’s or the government’s record, is that we don’t know what the evidence is and what policy should be. No politician or political commentator likes to admit that they can see a huge problem but don’t have a clue about how to solve it – yet, that is the problem we face. The simple solutions of media commentators are untested and their success rests largely on assertion rather than evidence. Or, when experts are called upon to settle the matter, you find that equally eminent scholars support contradictory solutions.

My new research with Emily St Denny shows just how far this problem goes. Even if there is cross-party agreement on the need to act, no one quite knows how to do it: how to define ‘prevention’ policies, gather evidence of ‘best practice’ (from home and abroad), turn the evidence into policies that can be ‘scaled up’ across the country, and demonstrate success for long term projects in a way that helps them compete for funding with high profile and popular quick fixes. What seems like an academic discussion about the nature of evidence and the mechanics of policy delivery is actually an issue at the core of the inequality debate. We show how foolish it would be to assume that the problem can be solved by attention and political will.

The latest version of this paper is here: Cairney 2015 EBPM and best practice 22.4.15 . It underpins a talk I gave to the Scottish Government today, and an academic-practitioner workshop tomorrow, bringing together the Government, Parliament, academics, and policy practitioners, to discuss how to move on from the broad commitment to reduce inequalities to actual projects with demonstrable success.

*This is also an issue that @chrisdeerin has been discussing for some time, partly to bash the Nats and partly to advocate learning from projects such as the ‘London Challenge‘. This is a broader topic – policy learning and transfer – that needs additional discussion. I discuss it (albeit tangentially) in some separate posts – such as  on theory – and in a previous paper looking at the transfer of prevention policies.

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