There are two classic ways to describe and try to explain policy implementation: top-down and bottom-up (see also the policy cycle).
We can focus on these descriptions of policy implementation to make two points relevant to our discussion so far:
- You might think that the ‘Scottish policy style’ and ‘Scottish approach’ produce fewer problems of implementation, but they produce different problems.
- 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:
- Its public sector landscape often appears to be less fragmented.
- It is less likely to oversee a ‘top-down’ policy style with unintended consequences (note the potential confusion over the meaning of top-down).
- 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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