Monthly Archives: November 2015

Westminster is more powerful than you think, but only if you dismiss its importance

Cowley tweet 4.1.15

When studying the role of parliament in the UK, it is common to argue that it is more powerful than you think. If the dominant narrative is that parliaments are peripheral to the policy process, then let’s show you what is wrong with that narrative.

I’ve done it myself several times (e.g. this article and this book pp104-7), partly because it’s a good hook for publication (and partly because David Judge was my PhD supervisor*). However, when I discuss these issues with students, I tend to conclude that an influence score of more-than-zero is still a low score. It’s a bit like me telling people: ‘I look pasty, but I can run faster than you think’.

I say this after reading Russell, Gover, and Wollter’s (2015) excellent empirical analysis of Westminster’s influence over the past decade. It is ‘more influential than is widely recognised’, but what does that really mean? Let’s break down (what I take to be) the article’s 3 key points:

  1. The non-influential argument is untested empirically. This is a good way to justify Russell et al’s empirical work, but I think it’s a bit misleading. I think there is a lot of empirical work on policymaking out there which fails to pick up on any Westminster influence whatsoever. For example, in a lot of my interview research, it has not occurred to participants (including interest groups and civil servants) to mention the role of Westminster unprompted because it is so far down the list of relevant factors.
  2. The vagaries of the bill process give a misleading picture of low MP influence. When we study the legislative amendment process we find that the majority of successful government amendments are innocuous (exaggerating its success) and many amendments by MPs are designed to prompt debate, not succeed (exaggerating their failure). True. This is partly because, by the time a bill gets to Parliament, it is already a draft Act. The government has little interest in changing something already negotiated in detail with interested groups, and MPs are often looking to make points or seek clarity. Yet, for me, this clarification does little to accentuate parliamentary influence. Rather, it warns against the conclusion of non-influence using misleading measures (not the same thing as demonstrating influence).
  3. To gauge parliamentary influence you need measures which take ‘anticipated reactions’ into account. The government’s bill teams take great care to anticipate parliamentary reaction to bills, and produce draft legislation accordingly. Further, much government legislation is prompted by MPs (via, for example, committee reports and MP bills). Both of these points are important, but they remain partial because government actions are prompted by 101 things. We know that ministers and civil servants take Parliament into account in many cases, but in how many cases can we say that parliamentary influence is decisive or near the top of the list of most important factors? This question is explored in more depth in Russell and Cowley’s excellent article,  but still to challenge the idea that Parliament is completely unimportant. We are still left with the argument: ‘if you think Westminster’s is really unimportant, Westminster is more powerful than you think’.

Where is the public policy analysis?

Russell and Cowley aim to ‘adopt a public policy lens, asking which parliamentary actors and processes exert influence, and at what policy stage(s)’. Yet, they cite almost none of the contemporary public policy literature (not even Jordan/ Richardson’s books after 1979, one of which engages with post-1979 developments).

For me, the value that you’d expect public policy analysis to add relates to its range of perspectives. A focus on networks was often to highlight the limits to ministerial as well as parliamentary power, since the state is so large that elites have to delegate most policymaking to other people, and can only keep track of a small proportion of government activity. Further, a focus on ‘street level’ actors and organisations further accentuates the sense that government policy is often delivered by routine, with a tendency for ministers and parliamentarians to pay attention to a tiny part of that activity. Perhaps most importantly, the contemporary literature tends to highlight the problems with a focus on stages to describe how policy is made. Or, if you are really keen, there is a discussion by Rod Rhodes and colleagues of the extent to which politicians maintain the fiction of the Westminster model of government, which can affect how they describe the role of Parliament and the importance of traditional forms of accountability.

I think that this kind of discussion informs the empirical analysis: if you ‘zoom in’ to look for evidence of (ministerial or) parliamentary influence you  will find some. However, if you are adopting a ‘public policy lens’, it seems worthwhile to also ‘zoom out’ and consider how this evidence connects to the wider public policy literature. A focus primarily on Richardson/ Jordan as the classic 1979 text, then King/ Crewe 2013 as something more up to date, only seems valuable if one wants to stick it to the older generation without engaging with more thoughtful or empirical analysis.

Where do we go from here?

If you are interested in these arguments, you should follow ‘politicsphd’, who is working in depth on the issues as they relate to the Scottish Parliament’s bill process. He has some points which are directly relevant to Westminster analysis, including:

  • We need more measures of influence. For example, we need to measure the overall effect of amendments rather than rely on counting substantive amendments (e.g. by comparing the bills before and after submission);
  • We need to go beyond vague classifications of legislatures. We should focus more on important variations in parliamentary influence, on a bill-by-bill basis, rather than focusing primarily on an often misleading gauge of overall influence according to some bills which may or may not be representative.

My argument is simpler and based on the application of ‘bounded rationality’ to legislatures such as Westminster:

  1. Actors like MPs and MSPs only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues processed by governments. So, they promote few to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest. They engage in ‘serial processing’: considering one issue at a time.
  2. Elected policymakers partly overcome this problem of serial processing by overseeing ‘parallel processing’ within government. A government breaks down policymaking into a huge number of discrete issues processed in different parts of the organisation. British parliaments tend not to have the resources to perform a similar role or keep up with the policy process in British government.
  3. So, you might expect the parliamentary equivalent of ‘punctuated equilibrium’: a tendency for parliaments to focus intensely on a small number of issues (with the potential for significant influence) at the expense of the vast majority of others.

In other words, think of parliamentary influence in terms of two sides of the same coin: if you identify influence in some areas, recognise the limited influence in most others.

For more of that sort of argument, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.


*In my first year as a politics undergraduate I learned that Westminster was only important to the tourist trade (my lecturer was Jeremy Richardson). In my 3rd year I learned that Richardson and Jordan were quite wrong (my lecturer was David Judge). In my 4th year I learned that policy networks were at the heart of explanation and that Parliament rarely featured (David Marsh). During my PhD on networks I put in a chapter on Parliament – CHAPTER_3 – to try to please David Judge. I worked briefly for Mark Shephard and we made the ‘more influential than you think’ case for the Scottish Parliament. Then I went full circle by working closely at Aberdeen with Grant Jordan. I now talk a lot about bounded rationality, which is at the heart of my explanation for limited parliamentary influence: MPs/ MSPs don’t have the resources to be particularly influential.


Filed under Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

The final Scottish devolution settlement is rubbish, and unionists should be worried

Imagine academics were more like a caricature of elected politicians: shouting their beliefs from the rooftops, super-selective with their interpretations of fact, unwilling to express uncertainty about anything political if it harmed their case, and willing to make wildly unsubstantiated predictions about the future.

Here is what I think many would make of the Scottish devolution settlement:

  • The new Scotland Bill represents the final devolution settlement.
  • This is the last chance to get devolution right before the next independence referendum.
  • Instead, it is a horrible mess, produced in a hurry and driven more by political negotiation than good sense (which is the usual story).
  • No-one can understand it and it will be almost impossible to hold any single government to account for many decisions (particularly since the Scottish Parliament will diminish even further in importance)
  • The fiscal framework underpinning the new settlement is a shambles and not worthy of support (David Bell and colleagues use the phrase ‘may not be workable’ when the plan contains contradictory principles).
  • The idea of a powerful Scottish Parliament overseeing incredibly high fiscal autonomy is absolute nonsense, because the Scottish Government does not have the ability to decide who should win and lose from the tax and spending regime (Bell and colleagues say ‘these taxes do not give the Scottish Government a great deal of flexibility in reality’).
  • Politicians would rather discuss their back of the envelope plans in private because they know that they would not stand up to scrutiny if they had to explain them to the general public (Nicola McEwen uses the phrase ‘After the democratic engagement of the referendum campaign, it is disappointing that debates on the Scotland Bill have largely excluded the public’).

If so, I pity the people charged with running the next No campaign, because they will be unable to say that (a) the Scottish devolution settlement is good, or (b) there will be a further settlement if you vote No (nor will they be able to make a convincing case based on British values).  Instead, what they can say is ‘we delivered on our promise for more devolution’ and, perhaps, ‘use the powers you have before you ask for more’.

The general problem with the latter argument is that it currently boils down to this kind of specific argument: if you don’t like UK Conservative cuts to benefits and tax credits, you can now raise taxes to offset them (then, presumably, the plan is to say ‘you didn’t raise taxes, so you are not as social democratic as you claim’).

What I suspect many people will hear is this: we agree that the Tory cuts are rubbish, and you have to pay more money to get back to where you started. In that context, the SNP still has the choice of saying that its hands are tied by the Tories or that it can only do so much to offset the damage. We are not yet, and perhaps never will be, at the stage where people will hold an SNP-led Scottish Government primarily accountable for the taxing and funding decisions that affect people in Scotland. Instead, for most of the run up to the next referendum, the Scottish Government (and Westminster contingent for Scotland) will be led by people, like Sturgeon and Swinney, who will remain more popular and seem more sincere and trustworthy than their UK counterparts.

Of course, the case can be made for problems with the next Yes campaign, including the argument that the SNP’s economic case is redundant and the campaign has to rely on more than emotion. The alternative argument is that the SNP has been doing very well with such limited strategies, and the final devolution settlement has just strengthened its hand further.

But academics don’t speak like that, so I’ll conclude by saying: (a) more research is required, and (b) please see the Special issue of Political Quarterly on this topic (introduced here).


Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics

Key issues in evidence-based policymaking: comparability, control, and centralisation

In other posts on evidence-based policymaking I’m critical of this idea: the main barriers to getting evidence into policy relate to the presentation of scientific evidence, timing, and the scientific skills of policymakers. You may overcome these barriers without closing the ‘evidence-policy gap’ and, for example, spend too much effort trying to reduce scientific uncertainty on the size of a policy problem without addressing ambiguity and the tendency of policymakers to be willing to consider only a limited range of solutions.

In this post, I try to reframe this discussion by generally describing the EBPM process as a series of political choices made as much by scientists as policymakers. The choices associated primarily with policymakers are also made by academics, and they relate to inescapable trade-offs rather than policymaking problems that can somehow be solved with more evidence.

In this context, a key role of policy analysis is to improve policymaking by clarifying key elements of the process in which we produce, understand, and use evidence on policy solutions[i] (in part by encouraging scientists to understand the choices of policymakers by reflecting on their own).

The three Cs: comparability, control, and centralisation

When we focus on the evidence underpinning policy solutions or ‘interventions’, let’s start with three key terms and note the potential to identify a notional spectrum of approaches to the issues they raise. I’ll describe them as ideal-types for now:

  1. Control.

In randomised control trials (RCTs) we conduct experiments to determine the effect of an intervention by giving the dose to one group and placebo to the other. This takes place in a controlled environment in which we are able to isolate the effect of an intervention by making sure that the only difference between the control groups is the (non)introduction of the intervention.

A key tenet of policy analysis is that it is difficult if not impossible to control real-world environments and, therefore, to be sure that an intervention works as intended.

Indeed, some scholars argue that complex policymaking systems defy control and, therefore, are not conducive to the use of RCTs. Instead, we use other methods such as case studies to highlight the interaction between a large number of factors which combine to produce an outcome (the result of which cannot be linked simply to the independent effects of each factor).

As a result, we have our first notional spectrum: at one end is complete confidence in RCTs to conduct policy-relevant experiments; at the other is a complete lack of confidence in their value.

  1. Comparability.

This choice about how to address the issue of control feeds directly into our understanding of comparability. If you have complete confidence in RCTs you can produce a series of studies in different times/places/populations, based on the understanding that the results are directly comparable. You might even say that: if it worked there, and there, and there, it will work here. If you have no confidence in RCTs, you seek other ways to consider comparability, such as by producing case study analysis that is detailed enough to allow you to highlight patterns which might be apparent in multiple cases.

  1. Centralisation.

If a national central government identifies effective policy solutions, should it roll them out uniformly across the country or allow local public bodies the chance to tailor solutions to their areas? At one end of another notional spectrum is the idea that they should seek uniformity to ensure ‘fidelity’ to a successful programme which requires a specific dosage, or simply to minimise a ‘postcode’ lottery in which people receive different levels of service in different parts of the country. At the other end is the preference for localism built on arguments including: one size does not fit all, local authorities have their own mandates to make local policy choices, a policy will not succeed without consultation and local ‘ownership’, and/ or local public bodies need the ability to adapt to quickly changing local circumstances.

What happens when the three Cs come together?

Although we can separate these terms and their related choices analytically, in practice people make these choices simultaneously or one choice in one category influences choices in the others.

In effect, two fundamental debates play out at the same time: epistemological and methodological disagreements on the nature of good evidence; and, practical disagreements regarding the best way for national policymakers to translate evidence into local policy and practice. Such disagreements present a major dilemma for policymakers, which cannot be solved by scientists or with reference to evidence. Instead, it involves political choices about which forms of evidence to prioritise and how to combine evidence with governance choices to inform practice.

Our new spectrum of choice may involve a range of options within the following extremes: oblige policy emulation/ uniformity and roll out policy interventions that require ‘fidelity’ to the policy intervention (minimal discretion to adapt interventions to local circumstances); or, encourage policy inspiration, as people tell detailed stories of their experiences and invite others to learn from them.

These approaches to policymaking are tied strongly to approaches to evidence gathering, such as when programmes based on RCTs require fidelity to ensure the correct dosage of an intervention during a continuous process of policy delivery and evaluation. They are also influenced by the need to adapt policies to local circumstances, to address (a) the ‘not invented here’ problem, in which local policymakers are sceptical about importing policies that were not developed in their area; and, (b) normative arguments about the relative benefits of centralisation and localism, regarding the extent to which we should value policy flexibility and local political autonomy, and the generation of normative principles guiding service delivery (e.g. include service users and communities in the design or ‘co-production’ of policy) as much as alleged effectiveness.

What is the value of such discussions?

First, elected policymakers are often portrayed as the villains of this piece because, for example, they don’t understand RCTs and the need for RCT-driven evaluations, they don’t recognise a hierarchy of evidence in which the systematic review of RCTs represents the gold standard, and/ or are unwilling to overcome ethical dilemmas about who gets to be in/ out of the control group of a promising intervention.

Yet, there are also academics who remain sceptical of the value of RCTs, have different views on the hierarchy of evidence (many scholars value practitioner experience and service user feedback more highly) and/ or who promote different ways to gather and use comparable policy-relevant evidence (see for example this entertaining exchange between Axford and Pawson).

Second, EBPM is not just about the need for policymakers to understand how evidence is produced and should be used. It is also about the need for academics to reflect on, for example:

  • the assumptions they make about the best ways to gather evidence and put the results into practice (in a political environment where other people may not share, or even know about, their understanding of the world).
  • the difference between the identification of evidence on the success of an intervention, in one place and one point in time (or several such instances), and the political choice to roll it out, based on the assumption that national governments are best placed to spread that success throughout the country.

Third, I have largely discussed extremes or ideal-types. In practice, people may be willing to compromise or produce pragmatic responses to the need to adapt research methods to real world situations. In that context, this kind of discussion should help clarify why scientists may need to work with policymakers or practitioners to produce a solution that each actor can support.

Further reading: EBPM and best practice 5.11.15


[i] Note:  we can generate and use evidence on two elements – (1) the nature of a problem, and (2) the value of possible solutions – in very different ways. A conflation of the two leads to a lot of confused debate about how evidence-based a policy or policymaking process tends to be.



Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

Looking ahead: will policy and policymaking change with constitutional change? #POLU9SP

This is the final lecture, and it should take us full circle to the first lecture which began with this statement: ‘A key part of this course is to examine critically the idea that political practices in Scotland are distinctively Scottish’. I provide a brief summary below, but most of the information is in this podcast, which you can download (right click on mp3 or mp4a) or stream here:

Devolution represents a major change in Scottish politics, but it did not produce major change in all aspects of Scottish politics. Instead, some expectations came to fruition while others remain unfulfilled.

Similarly, further devolution or Scottish independence may produce a similar sense of major change in politics and society, but we should not assume that it would produce major change in policy and policymaking.

In that context, let’s revisit the key themes/ questions of the course, ask what has changed in Scottish politics, and use our answer to think about any likely changes in the future:

  1. What aspects of Scottish politics and policymaking are ‘territorial’ and ‘universal’?
  2. Did devolution produce major political reforms and new forms of democracy?
  3. What aspects of the ‘Scottish policy style’ and ‘Scottish approach to policymaking’ are clearly distinctive?
  4. Can you meaningfully describe ‘Scottish politics’ when so much policymaking is multi-level?
  5. Did devolution prompt major policy change and/ or policy divergence between the Scottish and UK governments?

It is in this context that we can produce an informed discussion of the likely effects of major constitutional change in the future. For example, would Scottish independence:

  1. Change the way we study Scottish policymaking?
  2. Produce further political reform and democratic practices?
  3. Change the Scottish policy style?
  4. Have an effect on the multi-level nature of policymaking?
  5. Produce further policy change and/ or divergence?

In many, if not most cases, I think the answer is ‘no’.


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Case studies: early years, compulsory, further, and higher education #POLU9SP

This is the third of three posts which use case studies of cross-cutting and specific policy areas to add more depth to our discussion of Scottish politics and policymaking.

One of the SNP Government’s main aims is to abolish inequalities in education attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon put it in this stark way in a speech in Wester Hailes in August:

‘My aim – to put it bluntly – is to close the attainment gap completely. It will not be done overnight – I accept that. But it must be done. After all, its existence is more than just an economic and social challenge for us all. It is a moral challenge. Indeed, I would argue that it goes to the very heart of who we are and how we see ourselves as a nation’.

This specific aim raises important questions about the likely success of such policies when governments (a) seek to reduce the impact, not existence, of socioeconomic inequalities, (b) recognise the limits of their powers, and (c) make choices which seem to undermine their aims. In other words, we need to compare these high expectations with other statements, expectations, and policies pursued in other parts of education and government.

Sturgeon’s uncompromising language is important for three reasons

First, it implies that governments can have this profound level of influence on socio-economic outcomes. It reminds me of two former ambitions of the post-war UK governments: to maintain ‘full employment’, an aim long abandoned by both UK political parties; and to reduce health inequalities by setting up a National Health Service, an ambition exposed as unfulfilled by almost every major publication since the Black Report in 1980 (see also the previous lecture on health). These days, ministers don’t tend to make such bold statements of their likely success (for good reason).

Second, we should remember the point that normally remains unsaid: the SNP-led Scottish Government, like the UK Government, has no stated ambition to go to the ‘root cause’ of the problem to reduce the socio-economic inequalities through a far more redistributive tax and benefits system. It is not yet possible for the Scottish Government to take an approach, often linked to the idea of ‘Nordic’ social democracy, to combine (a) spending decisions based on an appeal to universal service provision, and (b) redistribution through fiscal policy. Instead, there is great potential for inconsistent UK/ Scottish strategies: the Scottish Government to oversee a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (on universal free services with no means testing) while the UK Government maintains a tax and benefits policy that many people will perceive to be insufficiently redistributive. Nor has the SNP made a firm commitment to redistribution in the event of Scottish independence in the future.

Instead, in almost all cases, we are talking instead about the use of public service delivery to mitigate their effects: a strategy that relies largely on the idea of ‘prevention’ policies to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives – through interventions such as parenting programmes – to improve their life chances.

Policymakers’ language is normally more realistic

Third, it is a language that stands out from most other Scottish Government discussions of education attainment, which reflect a more careful, or less ambitious, focus on realistic progress and change at the margins (as well as the continuous reminder of the Scottish Government’s limited policymaking powers while it remains part of the UK Government system).

One aspect of the more careful language relates to the limitations of government, and Scottish Government in particular. In February 2015, Sturgeon stated: ‘We must do all we can within the powers and resources we have to narrow the gap and drive up standards at all levels’.

This statement accompanied Sturgeon’s announcement of a £25m per year (over 4 years) scheme to encourage new initiatives and learn from success stories such as the London Challenge, a project driven by a similar ‘moral imperative’, and combining a focus on leadership/ collaboration and the relative performance in schools situated in areas with similar socio-economic backgrounds.

Sturgeon followed up this announcement with a focus on the partial return of testing pupils at key stages in schools. This plan forms part of a National Improvement Framework for Scottish education, which ‘will ensure that we are making progress in closing the gap in attainment between those in our most and least deprived areas’.

These decisions will take time to play out, and will involve some Scotland-specific debates about more uniform testing. Testing in this way is a strategy that was previously rejected in Scotland, and opposed by teaching groups, largely because of its association with a system in England built increasingly on league tables of performance, increased school autonomy (from local authorities), competition, and parent/ consumer choice. In other words, note the symbolic as well as substantive importance of testing. However, it may be necessary to have some kind of testing regime to gather data to allow the Scottish Government to demonstrate progress in attainment at key stages.

Is this new aim consistent with older Scottish Government choices?

Education policy sums up the political limitations to broad strategies such as ‘prevention’. The broad idea of ‘early intervention’, to make an impact on people’s lives as early as possible, to help reduce inequalities and the costs of public services, enjoys magnificent levels of cross-party support. Yet, it competes badly with more specific political commitments with the potential to undermine these broad aims.

In Scotland, the best example is current policy on free tuition fees in Universities which, in the absence of redistributive fiscal policy, and the presence of an attainment gap, reinforces inequalities in education three-fold. The first relates to the reduced likelihood of University attendance in school leavers from a deprived background. Lower educational attainment is linked strongly to poverty, and Scotland exhibits a significant gap in attainment in key areas.

Second, as Riddell et al argue, funding inequalities are often masked by a ‘universal’ approach in which higher education is free to eligible Scottish students. Yet, the absence of tuition fees benefits the middle classes disproportionately, while the debt burden is higher on poorer students. The maintenance of University funding also seems to come at the expense of the college places more likely to be filled by students from lower income backgrounds.

Third, there is a famous description of education spending by James Heckman, who argues that spending on early intervention and pre-school education is far more effective in reducing inequalities than spending on schools and universities (an argument that seems to be accepted by the Scottish Government). So, although the Scottish Government has made a commitment to extend funding on pre-school provision and early intervention programmes, these efforts at ‘transformational’ change compete with resources to maintain University funding.

Is there much money available for attainment and early intervention?

The new agenda on abolishing the attainment gap in schools has the potential to address only one of these issues, and it is potentially undermined by the high financial costs of the commitment to maintain other policies such as free tuition fees. Further, most of the real rise in education spending since devolution – e.g. 46% from 2000-11 – relates primarily to a combination of a new teacher contract and a commitment to a target of 53000 teachers, in part to further related targets such as on reduced primary school class sizes (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 229). In the past, when challenged on the value for money of such initiatives (in the early to mid-2000s), the then First Minister Jack McConnell defended the policy as a way to aid industrial relations and overall education attainment without identifying progress on inequalities in attainment (Cairney, 2011: 194). These policies continue (and take up most education resources) at the same time as new initiatives on inequalities.

Overall, I expect that we will look back on this one speech – on the ‘moral challenge’ to ‘close the attainment gap completely’ – as an outlier. It is an aim that sounds impressive as a rhetorical device, but it is not backed up by a coherent set of public policies designed to fulfil that end (at least in my lifetime).




Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

Case studies: healthcare, public health, mental health #POLU9SP

This is the second of three posts which use case studies of cross-cutting and specific policy areas to add more depth to our discussion of Scottish politics and policymaking.

Most aspects of health policy have been devolved since 1999, and many were devolved before 1999, so we can generate a relatively long term picture of policy change/ divergence in three key areas: healthcare, mental health, and public health. We can then revisit the idea of prevention and inequalities raised in the first lecture.


The NHS has always been a little bit different in Scotland, which enjoyed administrative devolution – through the Scottish Office (a UK Government Department) – before 1999 and maintained its own links with professional groups.

Scotland has traditionally trained a disproportionate number of UK doctors and maintained an unusually high presence of Royal Colleges. This greater medical presence boosted the Scottish Office’s policymaking image as ‘professionalised’, or more likely to pursue policies favoured by the medical profession than the UK’s Department of Health. For example, it appeared to be less supportive of reforms based on the ‘marketisation’ of the NHS.

Devolution turbo boosted this sense of Scottish policy difference (see the Greer and Jarman discussion).

For example, while the UK Labour Government furthered the ‘internal market’ established by its Conservative predecessors, the Labour-led Scottish Government seemed to dismantle it (for example, there are no Foundation hospitals). It also bought (and effectively renationalised) a private hospital, which had a symbolic importance way above its practical effect.

Since 2007, the SNP-led Scottish Government – often supported publicly by UK-wide groups such as the British Medical Association (and nursing and allied health professions) – has gone big on this difference between Scottish and UK Government policies, criticising the marketization of the NHS in England and expressing, at every opportunity, the desire to maintain the sort of NHS portrayed by Danny Boyle at the Olympics opening ceremony.

This broad approach is generally supported, at least implicitly, by the important political parties in Scotland (the SNP is competing with a centre-left Labour Party and the Conservatives are less important). It is also supported by a medical profession and a public that, in practice, tends to be more committed to the NHS (in other words, opinion polls may not always show a stark difference in attitudes, but there is not the same fear in Scotland, as in the South-East of England, that doctors and patients might defect to the private sector if the NHS is not up to scratch).

Public health

Scotland won the race to ban smoking in public places and is currently trying to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol. It has also placed particular emphasis on the wider determinants of health and made the right noises about the balance between public health and acute care. However, there are also major similarities in Scottish and UK Government approaches. For example, the UK tops the European league table on comprehensive tobacco control (and England/ Wales beat Scotland to ban smoking in cars with children).

Mental health

To some extent, early Scottish Governments developed an international reputation for innovation in some areas relating to wellbeing. It also reformed mental health and capacity legislation in a relatively quick and smooth way – at least compared to the UK Labour Government, which had a major stand-off with virtually all mental health advocacy groups on psychiatric-based reforms. Part of the difference relates to the size of Scotland and its government’s responsibilities which can produce a distinctive policy style; it often has the ability to coordinate cross-cutting policy, in consultation with stakeholders, in a more personal way. However, this is a field in which there tend to be often-similar policies beyond the Sun-style headlines.

The bigger picture of continuity: a tax funded service

These Scottish-UK differences should be seen in the context of a shared history and some major similarities. Both NHS systems are primarily tax-funded and free at the point of use, with the exception of some charges in England (which should not be exaggerated – for example, 89% of prescriptions in England are tax-funded). Both governments have sought to assure the public in similar ways by, for example, maintaining high profile targets on waiting times. Both systems face similar organisational pressures, such as the balance between a public demand for local hospitals and medical demand for centralised services. Both governments face similar demographic changes which put pressure on services. Both have similarly healthy (or unhealthy) populations.

The bigger picture of prevention and health inequality

Although the Scottish Government pursues an agenda on prevention to reduce service demand and health inequalities, many other policies based on the idea of universal provision have the potential to exacerbate inequalities.

For example, a real rise in spending (cash spending adjusted with the GDP deflator) on health policy of 68% from 2000-11 did not have a major effect on health inequalities (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 229). Instead, Scottish Governments tended to use the money in areas such as acute care to, for example, maintain high profile waiting list (non-emergency operations) and waiting times (A&E) targets which did not have a health inequalities component (Cairney, 2011: 177-9). It has also phased out several charges, such on prescriptions and eye tests, which increase spending without decreasing inequalities (particularly since the lowest paid already qualified for exemptions for charges).

It has pursued strongly a public health strategy geared, in part, towards reducing health inequalities, but with the same tendency as in the UK for healthcare to come first. This process includes interesting overlaps in aims and outcomes, such as in tobacco control where smoking is addressed strongly partly because it represents the single biggest element of health inequalities, but most initiatives do not necessarily reduce inequalities in smoking.

Further Reading

I discuss these issues in more depth in Scottish Politics and The Scottish Political System Since Devolution. See also this draft chapter on prevention and health policy by the Scottish and UK Governments


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Case studies: prevention and early intervention to address austerity and inequality #POLU9SP

This is the first of three posts which use case studies of cross-cutting and specific policy areas to add more depth to our discussion of Scottish politics and policymaking.

We begin with a broad focus on ‘prevention’ policy for 4 reasons:

  1. It is a major Scottish Government priority, to use ‘prevention’ and ‘early intervention’ to reduce socioeconomic inequalities and/ or public service costs.
  2. It is an integral part of the ‘Scottish approach to policymaking’, with a strong emphasis on the changes to joined-up national government and partnerships in local government.
  3. It highlights multi-level policymaking and key overlaps in Scottish and UK Government responsibilities.
  4. We can compare the Scottish Government’s initial statement – committing itself to a ‘decisive shit to prevention’ – to actual outcomes.

But what is prevention policy?

Broadly, prevention and ‘preventative spending’ describe a range of policies designed to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives to improve their wellbeing and reduce demand for acute or reactive public services. 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 – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive.

Prevention policy is described periodically as the solution to three major crises in politics.

  1. If we don’t make fundamental changes to the way we fund and deliver services they will go bust.

Prevention symbolises the desire to shift from expensive demand-led reactive services – such as acute care hospitals, jails, and police and social work interventions for ‘troubled families’ – towards intervening as early as possible in people’s lives to improve their life chances and reduce their reliance on the state. The classic intervention may be a public health policy to encourage healthy behaviour, or an early intervention programme to improve the life chances of teenage mothers and their children, but prevention is broad enough to include a campaign to reduce falls among older people, aimed at keeping people out of NHS beds.

  1. Prevention policies can reduce major inequalities within society.

The broad aim is to address the ‘root causes’ of social problems – such as poverty, social exclusion, and poor accommodation – while specific projects focus on early interventions, such as pre-school provision and parenting programmes, to address major gaps in key indicators, such as education attainment, that can be identified from a young age.

  1. Prevention is a solution to modern crises of government.

A prevention philosophy goes hand in hand with a governance philosophy which identifies the failures of top-down centralist government. The general rhetoric is about policy failure when governments try to do things to you, in favour of making policy with you. It comes with a commitment to: ‘holistic’ government in which we foster cooperation between, and secure a common aim for, departments, public bodies and stakeholders; ‘localism’, or fostering the capacity of local communities to tailor national policies to their areas;  tailoring public services to their users, encouraging a focus on the ‘assets’ of individuals, and inviting users to participate and ‘co-produce’ their services; a shift from simplistic short term targets and performance management towards meaningful long term outcomes-based measures of policy success and population wellbeing; as well as some reliance on ‘evidence based policy making’ to identify which interventions produce the most benefit and deserve investment.

How does prevention relate to the ‘Scottish approach’?

In other words, prevention policies generally combine specific ‘interventions’ with the broad governance principles, including ‘localism’ and the inclusion of users in the design of public services, that we discussed in relation to the ‘Scottish approach’ (but which is also pursued, in different ways, by the UK government). For example, the Scottish Government pursues prevention policies primarily via Community Planning Partnerships and the Single Outcome Agreements produced largely by local authorities.

Have a look again at the descriptions of the Scottish approach by Elvidge and Housden (including Elvidge’s belief that ‘traditional policy and operational solutions’ based on a ‘target driven approach’ would not produce the major changes in policy and policymaking required to address major problems such as inequalities).

What aspects of ‘prevention’ does the Scottish Government control?

The UK government controls monetary and fiscal policies, largely determining the budget used by the Scottish Government to spend and invest, and limiting its ability to redistribute income to address economic inequalities. It controls most aspects of social security, including the ability to address inequalities through direct payments, and determine the rules relating to benefits and unemployment.

Therefore, although the Scottish Government has primary responsibility for most areas of delivery relevant to prevention – such as health, education, housing, local government, and criminal justice – as well as some aspects of economic regeneration and employability, it does not have the responsibility to ‘join up’ taxation, social security, and the delivery of public services. For example, its ability to address health and education inequalities by using taxation policies to address income inequalities is very limited (even after proposed changes in the Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016). It could not reform the benefits system to supplement its powers to influence ‘employability’ policy, or emulate the UK Government’s attempts to pass on social security savings to the local authorities implementing its ‘troubled families’ programme.

How does it fit in with the bigger picture of policy change since devolution?

Although the Scottish Government referred rarely to ‘prevention’ before 2010, it identified several ways to address inequalities. From 1999, it began to address ‘social inclusion’, which ‘become a shorthand label to refer to individuals alienated from economic, political, and social processes due to circumstances such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor neighbourhoods, bad health and lack of access to childcare’ (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 211). The most direct responses, to encourage employability or provide social security benefits, were UK responsibilities, and the Scottish Government relied on UK Government’s policies such as ‘welfare to work, the minimum wage and the Working Families Tax Credit’ (2008: 211).

The Scottish Government’s main response was to address disadvantages by focusing on economic regeneration in specific geographical areas, and reducing ‘unequal access to services such as education, health and housing’ (2008: 210). Its approach to governance reflected a developing ‘Scottish approach’, with an emphasis on social inclusion as a cross-departmental theme and the development of ‘Social Inclusion Partnerships’ (SIPs) which resembled CPPs (2008: 211).

Yet, overall, Scottish social inclusion policy did not differ markedly from the UK Government’s ‘social exclusion’ initiatives, and both governments have continued to promote concepts such as community and individual resilience rather than push for redistributive policies to address exclusion.

Further, the Scottish Government shared with the UK Government a tendency to focus on high profile issues or policies designed to improve outcomes overall without necessarily reducing inequalities of outcome (see the next two lectures/ posts on health and education).

Is there an implementation gap? Or, how do outcomes relate to initial expectations?

Until policymakers make sense of prevention, and turn it into a series of specific policies, it remains little more than an idiom – ‘prevention is better than cure’ – with little effect on government policy.

Although it is probably too early to detect an implementation gap associated with the ‘decisive shift’ in 2011, we can identify the great potential for unfulfilled expectations  based on the lack of progress associated with previous efforts. For example, the Christie Commission, which set the Scottish Government’s new prevention 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.

However, note the ‘bottom up’ element to this new agenda: does it make sense to identify the top-down idea of an implementation gap, when the Scottish Government is so keen to set a broad strategy and delegate policymaking responsibility? For me, this is a fascinating dilemma for governments: how to they ‘let go’ of policymaking and make sure that their broad aims are met in a meaningful way?

We can explore these issues in more depth in the next two posts which focus on two of the most devolved policy areas: health and education.

See also: Can the Scottish Government pursue ‘prevention policy’ without independence?


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Academics: should we stop emailing our colleagues and students at 7pm?

The Athena Swan awards have proved to be a significant factor in encouraging conversations about diversity issues and disseminating examples of good practice. As long as they continue to be about facilitating such conversations and internal reflections their importance will remain. If any institution starts to use them, not as the motivator for debate and action but as simply a tick-box exercise which has to be gone through for the colour of the logo on their headed notepaper their worth will instantly be diminished. Departments need to keep their eyes on the primary goal of creating a more equal and creative workplace and not being fooled into believing that an award confers some sort of prestige and that no further work is needed (Athene Donald, ‘Eradicating Gender Stereotyping: How can Athena Swan Awards Help?’)

My University is serious about the Athena Swan process, and I have begun to coordinate the bronze application for our School of Arts and Humanities. My impression from the guidance from the Equality Challenge Unit is that the focus is more on the process in which we come up with a good strategy than the strategy itself (or, at least, they should have equal weight).

In other words, it is not enough to import something that worked in another department or University, partly because a lot of these initiatives only work when they are introduced on the back of meaningful discussion about their rationale and likely consequences.

My not-entirely-useful analogy (which I use in empirical policy analysis) is with medicines: with ibuprofen the important thing is the active ingredient, isobutylphenyl (which comes with a suggested dosage), and the delivery system – such as the capsule – is less important. Yet, in policy, the ‘delivery system’ can be the crucial factor since it involves issues such as how you determine the best ‘intervention’, who is involved in the decision, and how you will seek to persuade people about, or ‘coproduce’, the best way forward.

Are there any quick wins?

I’d been hoping that, during the development of our application, we might produce a few ‘quick wins’ –  solutions that are so obvious and well supported that we can put them forward for School approval with minimal discussion – to allow us to focus on the more ambitious and difficult proposals. Yet, even at this early stage, I’m not sure they exist.

Let me give you the example of this solution to one problem: let’s not email our colleagues or students at the weekends and outside the hours of 7am and 7pm.

I think there is a good rationale for this solution if you start at one particular place with an argument relevant to Athena Swan:

  • Universities have a reputation for implicitly encouraging long working hours
  • Part of the problem is a macho or male-dominated culture in which you boast about how long you work (and, in effect, how willing you are to ignore your families while you climb the career ladder)
  • People often refer to this expectation for long working hours to make unrealistic demands on University staff: some managers looking for increased outputs, and some students demanding late night and weekend responses to emails.

So, we need a solution which places limits on those expectations and symbolises the need:

  1. For all staff to maintain a good work/life balance for the sake of their mental and physical health.
  2. To make sure that the staff with significant caring responsibilities are not disadvantaged by the promotions and pay rises system based on the unrealistic expectations that only so many people can meet (in the context of a working assumption based on probability: that women are more likely to have such caring responsibilities).
  3. In terms of the initial aims of Athena Swan, to make sure that this culture does not dissuade women from entering the profession, or contributes towards them leaving.

On that basis, a 7-7 (no weekend) email policy looks like a great solution. It is simple and looks feasible (it is easy to communicate and you can likely track its progress) and would signal to people that there should be a time when work stops and life begins (even if the simple dichotomy is misleading). A University commitment to such a policy would signal to managers and students that they should not expect a response from staff at particular times, and might spark off a more meaningful discussion on these issues.

Yet, it will not be a quick win, for the following reasons:

  1. Without consultation, you don’t gather enough relevant information and identify alternative perspectives on the same issue. For example, I have spoken to people with caring responsibilities who would see this move as detrimental to the flexibility they enjoy as academics. For example, some people catch up on emails when their children have gone to bed in the early evening, and many would resent the additional burden of rescheduling their work.
  2. Without discussion, you don’t generate ‘ownership’ of policies. These policies, which largely began as a way to help people, can soon seem like a top-down imposition which makes their working lives worse.
  3. The subsequent debate on this issue takes time away from the consideration of others. The perception of imposition tends to produce prolonged debate. Seemingly simple solutions begin to dominate our time-limited discussions, since it is often easier to debate in painful detail the minutiae of University rules than to take a collective step back to think of the big picture.

In other words, all of these ‘no brainer’ solutions can have major unintended consequences.

So, where do we go from here?

In this case, it would be tempting to produce a fudge about not normally emailing after 7, and focus on explaining its rationale without trying to change behaviour directly, but my impression is that the ECU wants specific ‘actionable’ plans which allow us to measure our progress towards an aim. It would also be tempting to come up with a technological solution, which allows us to click a button to delay the sending of our emails (which is not always as easy as it sounds when you work off campus).

Who knows? I guess, until we ask enough people in our departments, we won’t find out. Or, if anyone else has tried out this sort of solution in Universities, I’d like to know about it. Please feel free to add a comment with more information.

Update: so far, when people have expressed concerns or opposition to such a policy, they say that: the real aim is to remove the expectation that people have to reply to emails outside normal working hours, so address it directly. I’d be interested in any initiative to do that without a limited hours policy. For example, has any division/ University simply made a statement to staff and students about what they can expect?

See also: you can follow some of the twitter discussion by opening the link here Twitter thread


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Can anyone use the ‘tools’ of policy analysis?

We often use the metaphor of ‘tools’ to describe the ways in which people use public policy analysis. For some, the suggestion is that – like a hammer and chisel – anyone could pick them up and use them. Yet, let’s think about that metaphor some more:

  • Anyone can use a hammer and chisel, but many people lop of their fingers or break things while doing so.
  • You use a hammer and chisel for a particular purpose, such as to create a sculpture. We can all whack a bit of stone with a blunt object, but it takes skill to turn it into something worth your attention.
  • Many tools require training before you should use them: power tools, lasers, MRIs, the screws to insert frames into broken bones, and so on.

My argument is this: you wouldn’t trust a political scientist to make you a piece of art, fix your window, do your laser eyesight correction, or scan your brain, because it is generally not a good idea to pick up and use these tools without training. So, have a quick think about who you would trust with policy tools if they just picked them out of the shed and used them for the first time.

What sort of training do you need to use policy analysis tools effectively?

Let me give you three examples, bearing in mind that the tools metaphor will get annoying soon:

  1. You like the look of the policy cycle.

It offers a simple way to turn evidence into policy: you use evidence to identify a problem, provide a range of feasible evidence-based solutions, choose the best solution, then legitimise, implement, and evaluate the solution. However, you soon find that the cycle is the equivalent of, say, a manual carpet sweeper. The technology has moved on, and we now have a much improved understanding of the policy process. In empirical policy analysis, the cycle remains as a way to begin our discussion before identifying more useful concepts and theories.

Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to know about the state of the art of the technology we use.

  1. You like the look of multiple streams analysis.

It too offers a simple way into the subject. Further, it remains a well-respected and much-used tool for analysis. Let’s say it is like the X-ray. It has been used for decades and it remains a key tool in medicine (and security). You need some training to operate it and, crucially, your training would not stop at ‘here is how we used it in the 1980s’.

In other words, many people pick up Kingdon’s classic book and apply its simple insights without much reference to 3 decades of conceptual advance (much contemporary MSA was developed by other people) and hundreds of other empirical applications.

Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to keep up to date with the ways in which people use the technology.

  1. You want to pick and choose insights from several theories.

This is a fairly common exercise: people pick and choose concepts, adapt them to produce their models, and apply different concepts in different ways. If you are optimistic, you will think of something like a Dremel which has the same starting point/ base unit and dozens of compatible attachments. If, like me, you are not so optimistic, you imagine a frying pan radio or an X-ray machine glued onto the side of an MRI. It can be fruitful to combine the insights of concepts and theories, but not without thinking about the trade-offs and the compatibility between concepts (which prompts some scholars to identify one kind of tool to replace another).

Using the tools metaphor, you need regular training to know how compatible each tool is with the other, and if one is used to replace another.

This last point is crucial if you want to go beyond using a tool for a one-off project, to compare your insights and lessons with other people. Many people will want to know how you fared when you used the same tools/ approach/ language as them, and you can learn from each other’s experiences. Indeed, the aim of theory is to produce comparable and, if possible, generalisable insights, Relatively few people will want to learn from someone who glues an X-ray to an MRI, and it will be difficult to generalise from the experience.

The upshot is that you can indeed pick up some policy analysis tools and use them to improve your understanding of the world. Indeed, I encourage you to do so in this series of posts which outlines the concepts you are most likely to see stocked in Home Depot.

However, I also suggest that you use them as the first step of your project (or engage the help of more qualified people), since most of these concepts come with a training manual that can take years to read.

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Debate: the nature of evidence-based policymaking and academic-policymaker exchange

Kathryn Oliver, Adam Wellstead and I have a letter in Nature (forthcoming) which comments on a recent article by Sutherland and Burgman on the topic of evidence-based policymaking.

Our letter is short and well-edited, so we thought it would be useful to share the original submission:

“We read your recent comment on expert advice[1] with interest and some alarm. An interest in increasing research impact is to be welcomed. However, advice on how to ‘control’ the complex social processes between policy and evidence is naive at best, and deliberately antidemocratic at worst.

A number of unsupported statements about the use of evidence in policy are made including: advice is the “predominant” mode by which evidence influences policy decisions. Sutherland conflates scientific bias, lack of consensus and group dynamics as sources of expert’s uncertainty; which they claim can be addressed by e.g. training experts and weighting their opinions – which policymakers are certainly not qualified for.

Dispiriting, if true. Fortunately, a massive interdisciplinary literature exists showing that most, if not all of their assumptions are grossly misinformed. Policymakers access multiple evidence types[2] (technical, research, routinely collected), used in many ways[3] (– not just as “though it were data” (whatever that means). Academic advice has not been shown to lead to ‘better’ policy (whatever that is). Policymakers, in fact, are influenced by a far greater range of factors admitted here (e.g. public opinion, inheritance of policies and institutional rules, finance, unpredictable events, and trust in actors). This article does not draw on current models of policymaking, as understood by policy scholars.

While limited knowledge of the relevant literature is unfortunate, there are further negative impacts; perpetuation of negative stereotypes of both policymakers and academics, when in fact there are many examples of productive collaborations and hybrid roles; the undermining of colleagues doing and researching knowledge mobilisation for policy; and the lesson that the complex relationship between evidence and policy can be reduced to a linear, technocratic process.  Giving non-evidence-based advice to policymakers or academics will only hamper the creation of good quality relationships”.

[1] Sutherland WJ, Burgman MA. Policy Advice: Use Experts Wisely. Nature (2015) 526;317-318.

[2] Pearce W, Wesselink A, Colebatch H. Evidence and meaning in policymaking. Evidence and Policy (2014) 10:2, 161-165

[3] Smith, Katherine E., and Kerry E. Joyce. “Capturing complex realities: understanding efforts to achieve evidence-based policy and practice in public health.” Evidence & Policy: A Journal of Research, Debate and Practice 8.1 (2012): 57-78




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The implementation of policy in Scotland #POLU9SP

There are two classic ways to describe and try to explain policy implementation: top-down and bottom-up (see also the policy cycle).

top down bottom up

We can focus on these descriptions of policy implementation to make two points relevant to our discussion so far:

  1. You might think that the ‘Scottish policy style’ and ‘Scottish approach’ produce fewer problems of implementation, but they produce different problems.
  2. An ‘implementation gap’ reinforces our sense (in the previous lecture) that there hasn’t been that much policy divergence in Scotland since devolution.

Implementation and the Scottish policy style

Based on our discussions so far, you might think that the Scottish Government would suffer fewer problems of implementation than the UK government because:

  1. Its public sector landscape often appears to be less fragmented.
  2. It is less likely to oversee a ‘top-down’ policy style with unintended consequences (note the potential confusion over the meaning of top-down).
  3. Its greater willingness to consult helps it gather information and secure ‘ownership’.

Yet, I found that it (generally) had different, not fewer, problems. For example, you do not guarantee implementation success by relying on local authorities rather than private or third sector bodies. Further, the Scottish Government may have more ‘external conditions’ to take into account, since its policies often overlap with those of the UK government and it often does not control the success of its own policies.

Or, high levels of consultation can help produce unrealistic strategies and inflated expectations when a government gives the impression that: a policy choice represents radical change; it is the key actor (rather than one of many players in a multi-level system); and, it plans to enforce not delegate and negotiate policy delivery.

The Scottish Approach and bottom-up implementation

Indeed, isn’t the newest incarnation of the ‘Scottish approach’ more of a bottom-up than top-down strategy? In other words, it sets a broad framework based on policy outcomes and asks local authorities and community planning partnerships to produce their own strategies to achieve those outcomes.

Consequently, it may not make sense to try to explain an ‘implementation gap’ because some of the top-down conditions for success do not seem to apply, including: there are no clear/ consistent objectives (at least according to my interpretation of that condition), and there is no requirement for compliant officials.

Policy divergence and the implementation gap

Yet, many Scottish Government policies can be analysed usefully through the lens of an ‘implementation gap’, including:

  • ‘Free personal care’ for older people. This is an important one, because FPC used to symbolise policy divergence after devolution. Yet, it translated into a less-than-expected reduction in care home costs and, for many people (it is hard to know the number) a replacement of one way of securing free care with another (you should make sure you understand how this happened – see Scottish Politics for more detail). There have also been problems with waiting lists for care, and debate about what counts/ doesn’t count as personal care.
  • Housing and homelessness. Over the years, the Scottish Government has promised higher housing standards and lower levels of homelessness but struggled to translate ambitious aims into outcomes (and, it has produced essentially the same strategy on homelessness twice since devolution).
  • Fox hunting. You can still hunt foxes if you want (anyway, would there be many people there to stop you if you tried?) and the unintended consequence of policy is that you might now catch the wrong ones.

If we have the time, we might also discuss modern examples such as the Curriculum for Excellence. We might also wonder why some policies seem to have been implemented successfully (can you think of examples?).

In many of these cases, the promise of policy divergence mixes with implementation problems to produce less divergence than we might have expected if we focused simply on the initial choices. This conclusion reinforces the idea that constitutional change in Scotland does not tend to produce radical policy change or major divergence from UK government policy.

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Policy change, convergence and divergence since Scottish devolution #POLU9SP

divergence difference

Policy change is already difficult to measure and explain, but in Scottish politics there is an added dimension. It is common to gauge policy change according to the extent to which Scottish Government policy diverges from UK Government policy. This comparison can only take us so far, so I will begin with a discussion of divergence then take us back to Scottish policy change in its own right.

What might cause convergence and divergence?

Here is a list of possible causes, which we can discuss at more depth in the lecture (and can you think of others?):

Reasons for policy divergence (or difference):

  • Different social attitudes
  • Different parties in government
  • Ministers trying to make a difference
  • The larger role of public sector professionals in Scotland
  • Different policy conditions
  • A different policy process or style

Reasons for convergence (or similarity):

  • Public expenditure and borrowing limits
  • Overlaps between reserved and devolved policies
  • A ‘single market’ in the UK and the need to avoid unintended consequences
  • The same party of government
  • A similar role for key professions
  • Incrementalism, inertia, wicked problems and other reasons to limit policy change
  • Similar problems and ways of thinking (and learning)

box 9.2

Policy divergence: ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’

We sometimes describe policy divergence in Scotland as ‘evolution, not revolution’ (although evolution is not the opposite of revolution). In other words, devolution did not produce a radical departure from the past, in the way that we might associate with former Soviet countries. Rather, there is a mix of high profile ‘flagship’ policies mixed with a lot of fairly innocuous updating of the statute book. The big ones from 1999-2007 include:

  • ‘free’ personal care for older people
  • the reduction of higher education tuition fees
  • the abolition of the healthcare internal market
  • mental health legislative reforms
  • the introduction of the single transferable vote in local elections
  • the ‘smoking ban’ (does this example count?)

Then the big SNP government polices included:

  • the abolition of higher education tuition fees (and prescription charges)
  • the minimum unit price on alcohol
  • the reform of criminal justice sentencing
  • the pursuit of renewable energy projects and rejection of new nuclear energy stations
  • the pursuit of new ways to fund capital projects (e.g. schools and hospitals)

So, we have three images of the much-talked-about-before-devolution phrase ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’

The first relates to the idea that Westminster had insufficient time for Scottish legislation, and so devolution would present a new opportunity for policy innovation and new ideas. Yet, perhaps after a honeymoon period, public policy did not appear to change dramatically or mark dramatic policy divergence from the past or the rest of the UK.

The second relates to devolution as a way to avoid policy innovation: to step off the train associated with the constant top-down reform agenda of the UK government. This second image is often a better guide, and we can link it to (a) the idea that devolution in 1979 represented a missed opportunity to cushion the blow of Thatcherism, and (b) current debates on the extent to which devolution can actually protect Scotland from the worst excesses of UK policy (I am paraphrasing the arguments of other people here).

The third relates more to policymaking than policy: ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’ may relate to how Scottish institutions process policy than the actual policy outputs and outcomes (the ‘Scottish policy style’ or ‘Scottish approach’). As we have discussed in several lectures, this is not necessarily a small difference (particularly if you focus on Greer/ Jarman’s account of the differences in the use of ‘policy tools’).

Don’t forget existing differences

We miss a lot if we just focus on divergence, because much Scottish policy reinforces or maintains existing policy differences, such as when the Scottish Government reformed its curriculum and addressed teacher-local authority relations. Can you think of other examples?

Don’t forget policy change

We miss a lot of policy change if we only focus on divergence from UK government policy. For example, maybe the governments innovate and emulate each other (they don’t though – see box 9.2).

Or, they do very similar things or don’t quite manage to do different things:

  • Housing stock transfer and (until recently) the ‘right to buy’
  • Policies to address so called ‘anti-social behaviour’
  • Attempts by the Scottish and UK Governments (often in vain) to address ‘wicked problems’ such as social inclusion/ exclusion and socio-economic inequalities
  • Public health reforms such as tobacco control
  • Agricultural and fisheries policies (although can you identify key differences?)
  • Land taxation
  • Policies in development, such as an expansion of pre-school care and the very long gestation of local income tax

box 9.4

In the next lecture, we can also go into more depth on the idea of policy change, to identify a difference between (for example) policy divergence as a set of policy choices and their actual effect.


Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

What is Policy?

I’ve changed the name of this post to better introduce the ‘Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words’ series (, link to a longer introduction ( and, super cunningly, to do better in google searches.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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…

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The effect of constitutional change on politics and policymaking #POLU9SP

This is one of two opportunities in the course to consider the role of further constitutional change. In this lecture, we can explore the changes associated with Scotland Bills (and their causes). In the final lecture, we can take a step back and consider how much the territorial nature of the constitution/ political system compares with ‘universal’ aspects of the policy process.

The Scotland Act 1998 set up the modern Scottish Parliament, outlining its new institutions (including the electoral system) and policy responsibilities. Although I have tried to qualify-to-death the idea that Scottish devolution changed policymaking in Scotland, this was the big one. At the heart of our discussions of the ‘Scottish policy style’ is the knowledge that the Scottish Government has significant policymaking responsibilities and it uses its powers in often-distinctive ways.

The Act also represents the initial ‘settlement’ arising from a decades-long push for political devolution in Scotland. However, it did not prove to be the final settlement. Instead, the UK Government and ‘unionist’ political parties have sought ways to extend devolution enough to maintain Scottish support for the union.

Note the role and endurance of the ‘democratic deficit’ argument

In the 1990s, devolution was often described as a way to solve the ‘democratic deficit’. The charge was that people in Scotland voted for one party in a UK general election (Labour) but received another (Conservative) on many occasions.

This problem was exacerbated by a long spell of Thatcher-led government (1979-1990). A frequent argument is that devolution (made possible by a vote in 1979) could have ‘defended Scotland from Thatcherism’, and allowed the maintenance of Scottish traditions of participative democracy and social democracy. In that context, the new Scottish Parliament represented the idea that Scottish devolution would cushion the blow of any future UK Conservative government.

Yet, as we saw during the independence debate, devolution was often described by Yes supporters as a poor solution to the democratic deficit because the UK Government still makes decisions – particularly on the reform of the welfare state – which have a profound effect on Scotland, with little scope for the Scottish Government to produce an alternative.

The Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016

The Scotland Act 2012 amended the Scottish Parliament’s and Scottish Government’s responsibilities. It represents the second major attempt at a devolved settlement, following the election of an SNP (minority) government in 2007 and the rise of an independence agenda. The prospect of independence has prompted Scotland’s other main parties (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat – all of which are part of British parties) and the UK Government to consider further devolution; to try to produce a devolved solution that will settle the matter once and for all.

The Calman Commission recommended further devolution in 2009. It prompted the Scotland Act 2012, to introduce further tax devolution (part of income, land and landfill taxes), the ability of the Scottish Government to borrow to invest in capital projects, and new powers in areas such as Scottish Parliament elections, air weapons, driving and drug treatment. The Scotland Act 2012 was designed to be implemented after the referendum, giving opposition parties the opportunity to guarantee further devolution after a No vote.

Scotland Act 2012

Yet, this promise of further devolution proved to be insufficient and, during the referendum period, each party produced separate plans to extend devolution further. The parties then came together, in the lead up to the referendum to make what is now called ‘The Vow’ of ‘extensive new powers’ (and a retained Barnett formula) for a devolved Scotland. The Smith Commission was set up to take this agenda forward. It reported on the 27th November 2014, and its recommendations include to:

  • make the Scottish Parliament ‘permanent’.
  • devolve some fiscal powers, including the power to: set income tax rates and bands (higher earnings are taxed at a higher rate) but not the ‘personal allowance’ (the amount to be earned before income tax applies); set air passenger duty; and to receive a share of sales tax (VAT).
  • increase the Scottish Government’s borrowing powers.
  • devolve some aspects of social security, including those which relate to disability, personal care, housing and ‘council tax’ benefits (council tax is a property tax charged by local authorities to home owners/ renters and based on the value of homes).
  • devolve policies designed to encourage a return to employment.
  • devolve the ability to license onshore oil and gas extraction (which includes hydraulic fracturing, ‘fracking’, for shale gas).
  • control the contract to run the Scottish rail network.
  • encourage greater intergovernmental relations and a more formal Scottish Government role in aspects of UK policymaking.

In response, the UK Government has produced a new draft Scotland Bill.

To a large extent, the proposals reflect the plans of the three main British parties, rather than the SNP (which requested ‘devo max’), although they go further than those parties would have proposed in the absence of the referendum agenda. Again, they are designed to represent a devolved ‘settlement’, reinforced by the knowledge that 55% voted against Scottish independence in 2014 (the turnout was 84.6%).

Yet, this sense of a ‘settled will’ is not yet apparent. Indeed, it seems just as likely that the proposals will merely postpone a second referendum (although it is difficult to predict how long it will take the SNP to think it will win).

What will happen until then?

In the meantime, we can discuss how further devolution might affect the discussions we have had so far. For example, some things don’t seem destined to change much, such as the lack of ‘new politics’ or participatory democracy, the pervasiveness of networks, the development of the ‘Scottish approach’, or the importance of central-local relations. Others might see some significant developments:

  • The Scottish Parliament. If you think it is peripheral to the policy process now, think what will happen when the Scottish Government gets new responsibilities but the Parliament has the same paltry resources for scrutiny (see also McEwen, Petersohn and Swan).
  • MLG and IGR. Nicola McEwen and Bettina Petersohn know more about this than me, and they go into (by drawing on relevant international comparisons) the kinds of issues that the UK and Scottish Governments will face when they develop a shared powers model. The biggest issue is that that there will be far more overlaps in policy responsibilities than before. Under the original settlement, their respective responsibilities were fairly clear. Now, they are expected to cooperate on issues such as taxation, social security, and the energy mix. There is also a weird-looking requirement for the actions of one government to have ‘no detriment’ on another, the effects of which we do not yet know.
  • The Barnett formula. David Bell knows more about this than me, and he thinks that the new arrangements will place a great strain on the formula, partly because the new taxation arrangements give the Scottish Government more power to set its own budget (at least notionally) than rely on a block grant from the Treasury.
  • It’s more difficult to work out the effect of its new responsibilities on tax and social security, but I predict that little will change (albeit in the knowledge that I am not known for my good predictions). Kirstein Rummery knows more about this subject than me. See her commentary on the Scottish Government’s budget and the longer term potential for major change.


Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish independence, Scottish politics

The role of HM Treasury and the ‘Barnett formula’ #POLU9SP

Q: why has the ‘Barnett formula’ endured for decades as a political solution despite being so heavily criticized?

A: it suits both governments because it turns potentially controversial funding negotiations into a routine and humdrum process that normally takes place out of the public spotlight.


Think back to our previous lecture which explained why IGR is so smooth and informal:

  • the arrangements suit both governments even though one is more powerful (and even when headed by different parties)
  • key actors, sometimes political parties but always civil servants, help smooth relations
  • there are well-established routines to solve overlaps in responsibilities and ward off potential disputes

The ‘Barnett formula’ is one of the best examples: the Treasury is the more powerful actor, but it has long accepted the use of a formula which appears to entrench Scotland’s advantageous funding settlement within the UK. It has the power to change the way in which it distributes territorial funding, but no alternative policy offers enough of an economic or political benefit to make up for the fallout from the opposition in Scotland to a major reduction of Scottish Government funding.

But what is the Barnett formula?

Here is a quick description. There is a longer description (and a list of further reading) in Scottish Politics.

The Scottish budget, transferred by the UK Treasury, comprises two elements:

  1. an initial block settlement based on historic spends, and
  2. the Barnett formula to adjust spending in Scotland to reflect changing levels of spending in England.

The formula only relates to changes in the level of spending. It is based on an estimate of populations within the UK. Initially this was a 10–5–85 split for Scotland, Wales and England which suggested that Scotland would receive 10/85 of any increase in comparable spending for England by UK Government departments (or lose the same amount if spending fell). This comparability varies according to department. While some are almost fully devolved (e.g. Health, Education), others are partly devolved (e.g. Transport) and only the comparable spending will be applied to Scotland.

So, ‘Barnett consequentials’ (how much does the relevant Scottish Government budget change when spending for England changes?) are based on three estimates:

  1. Scotland’s share of the UK population
  2. The change in levels of spending of UK Government departments
  3. The level of comparability in specific programmes.

However, note that a change in spending on, say, health in England does not mean a direct change in health spending in Scotland. Instead, the change is made to the overall Scottish Government budget, and the Scottish Government decides if it will follow the UK lead or not.

This final point is at the heart of a lot of futile debate on the extent to which Scottish Government spending on salient areas – such as the NHS – can/ does/ should rise at the same rate as spending rises in England because:

If the Barnett formula is working as allegedly intended it should not be possible for the Scottish Government to keep up (with a proportionate real rise in spending) without finding money from elsewhere.

What is the Barnett Formula allegedly supposed to do?

I say ‘allegedly’ because people have been piecing together the history of Barnett, and not everyone agrees on its primary function.

barnett supposed to do

What we can say for sure is that – ‘all other things remaining equal’ (ceteris paribus) – the consequence of extra spending in England is extra spending in Scotland according to its estimated share of the population rather than its traditionally higher share of UK public expenditure (the latter is sometimes estimated at 20% per head higher than in England).

The latter is proportionally greater because Scotland’s initial block settlement produced much larger per capita spending than in England (‘per capita’ spend is the budget divided by the population). So, there should be significant convergence between spending in England and Scotland: the more spending there is, the smaller the gap in per capita spending.

Yet, the ‘Barnett squeeze’ didn’t happen as much or as quickly as we might expect because:

  • The estimates are not accurate (England’s population is rising more quickly than Scotland’s)
  • Spending doesn’t always go up
  • The UK Government sometimes gives ad hoc funding to the Scottish Government without using the formula (‘formula bypass’)

Further, Scotland’s higher per capita spending is often maintained by UK Government spending that is not covered by the formula, in areas such as social security and agriculture.

Barnett fair

Why has Barnett not been replaced by something more sensible?

The Barnett formula has stood the test of time despite repeated calls for its replacement. We can talk about two key explanations:

  1. Agenda setting and incrementalism/ inertia. Imagine that both governments privately like the political advantages of the formula (although elected members often say something different in public) because (a) it reduces the need for heated negotiations by introducing a semi-autonomic routine, and (b) it might suit both audiences: you can tell an audience in Scotland that it helps maintain its financial position in the short term; you can tell an audience in England that it reduces Scottish advantage in the long term. There is little incentive for them to shift radically from a previously-negotiated settlement, or at least one that only attracts periodic attention.
  2. The alternative is not easy. If you are going to change the system, it will produce winners and losers (and the losers may be more vocal). Ideally, you want to be sure that your alternative is demonstrably better. Maybe you even want to find a calculation that looks similarly technical and objective, so that it doesn’t look like you are making political choices to redistribute funding. Yet, no such objective calculation exists. Maybe the closest thing is a ‘needs assessment’ formula, but it suffers from three problems: a lack of agreement on the concept of need, or the criteria to use (let’s discuss some examples – free tuition fees, catholic schools), a lack of good information, and a lack of political will to go for the big change (or, a concern that the big change will tip the balance in favour of a Yes vote?)

What does this experience tell us about bigger issues of power and IGR?

Barnett is a good example of an effective IGR mechanism in the often-distinctive UK tradition: it helps maintain smooth governmental relations by using a routine measure to make big decisions. The Treasury has the power to change it, and to give the Scottish Government a smaller settlement, but it chooses to stick with a formula that suits both governments in important ways.

We can see a similar mix of power and flexibility in a broader discussion of their relationship:

  • The Treasury still controls the size of the Scottish Government: how much is raised in taxation then passed on to the Scottish Government, and the extent to which the Scottish Government can borrow to invest.
  • However, the Scottish Government has considerable power over how to spend its budget (particularly when compared with territorial governments in other countries).

When you put those statements together, you find some uncertainty about Scottish Government discretion:

  • it has the power to spend, but most of it is effectively tied-up in existing spending decisions (although this would be true regardless of its power to raise money);
  • it comes under partisan pressure to match Treasury decisions, particularly on higher NHS spending.

Further, the UK Government still makes the big decisions on how to deal with ‘austerity’ and, for example, how to reform social security spending.

In the next lecture, we can discuss how forthcoming constitutional changes may affect this relationship.



Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Framing

framing main

(podcast download)

‘Framing’ is a metaphor to describe the ways in which we understand, and use language selectively to portray, policy problems. There are many ways to describe this process in many disciplines, including communications, psychological, and sociological research. There is also more than one way to understand the metaphor.

For example, I think that most scholars describe this image (from litemind) of someone deciding which part of the world on which to focus.

framing with hands

However, I have also seen colleagues use this image, of a timber frame, to highlight the structure of a discussion which is crucial but often unseen and taken for granted:

timber frame

  1. Intentional framing and cognition.

The first kind of framing relates to bounded rationality or the effect of our cognitive processes on the ways in which we process information (and influence how others process information):

  • We use major cognitive shortcuts to turn an infinite amount of information into the ‘signals’ we perceive or pay attention to.
  • These cognitive processes often produce interesting conclusions, such as when (a) we place higher value on the things we own/ might lose rather than the things we don’t own/ might gain (‘prospect theory’) or (b) we value, or pay more attention to, the things with which we are most familiar and can process more easily (‘fluency’).
  • We often rely on other people to process and select information on our behalf.
  • We are susceptible to simple manipulation based on the order (or other ways) in which we process information, and the form it takes.

In that context, you can see one meaning of framing: other actors portray information selectively to influence the ways in which we see the world, or which parts of the world capture our attention (here is a simple example of wind farms).

In policy theory, framing studies focus on ambiguity: there are many ways in which we can understand and define the same policy problem (note terms such as ‘problem definition’ and a ‘policy image’). Therefore, actors exercise power to draw attention to, and generate support for, one particular understanding at the expense of others. They do this with simple stories or the selective presentation of facts, often coupled with emotional appeals, to manipulate the ways in which we process information.

  1. Frames as structures

Think about the extent to which we take for granted certain ways to understand or frame issues. We don’t begin each new discussion with reference to ‘first principles’. Instead, we discuss issues with reference to:

(a) debates that have been won and may not seem worth revisiting (imagine, for example, the ways in which ‘socialist’ policies are treated in the US)

(b) other well-established ways to understand the world which, when they seem to dominate our ways of thinking, are often described as ‘hegemonic’ or with reference to paradigms.

In such cases, the timber frame metaphor serves two purposes:

(a) we can conclude that it is difficult but not impossible to change.

(b) if it is hidden by walls, we do not see it; we often take it for granted even though we should know it exists.

Framing the social, not physical, world

These metaphors can only take us so far, because the social world does not have such easily identifiable physical structures. Instead, when we frame issues, we don’t just choose where to look; we also influence how people describe what we are looking at. Or, ‘structural’ frames relate to regular patterns of behaviour or ways of thinking which are more difficult to identify than in a building. Consequently, we do not all describe structural constraints in the same way even though, ostensibly, we are looking at the same thing.

In this respect, for example, the well-known ‘Overton window’ is a sort-of helpful but also problematic concept, since it suggests that policymakers are bound to stay within the limits of what Kingdon calls the ‘national mood’. The public will only accept so much before it punishes you in events such as elections. Yet, of course, there is no such thing as the public mood. Rather, some actors (policymakers) make decisions with reference to their perception of such social constraints (how will the public react?) but they also know that they can influence how we interpret those constraints with reference to one or more proxies, including opinion polls, public consultations, media coverage, and direct action:

JEPP public opinion

They might get it wrong, and suffer the consequences, but it still makes sense to say that they have a choice to interpret and adapt to such ‘structural’ constraints.

Framing, power and the role of ideas

We can bring these two ideas about framing together to suggest that some actors exercise power to reinforce dominant ways to think about the world. Power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group with greater material resources wins and another loses. It also relates to agenda setting. First, actors may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, what is the role of government? In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved.  In other examples, the battle may be about the extent to which issues are private (with no legitimate role for government) or public (and open to legitimate government action), including: should governments intervene in disputes between businesses and workers? Should they intervene in disputes between husbands and wives? Should they try to stop people smoking in private or public places?

Second, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, actors exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others.  Issues on the agenda are sometimes described as ‘safe’: more attention to these issues means less attention to the imbalances of power within society.


Filed under 1000 words, agenda setting, PhD, public policy