Daily Archives: April 18, 2016

What happens when policymakers have multiple, potentially contradictory, objectives? The curious case of Scotland’s ‘fiscal framework’

It is common in policy studies to state that policymakers or governments have many potentially-contradictory objectives:

  • When we focus on ‘complex government’ we note their large size, tendency to break functions down into specialist departments and units, and for those units to produce policies which undermine those of others.
  • When we focus on policymakers, we question their ability to produce a consistent set of rank-ordered preferences.

Indeed, Lindblom’s famous suggestion is that policymakers only know how to rank their preferences when they are forced to choose between them.

Yet, in the case of Scotland’s finances, the other option is to defer those choices (perhaps indefinitely, perhaps until events supersede the original problem).

In that sense, the deferment of a key part of Scotland’s ‘fiscal framework’ is part of a fine tradition in Scottish politics to try one’s hardest not to talk about the size of the Scottish Government budget. The mythical ‘Barnett formula’ served this purpose well by providing an almost automatic way to adjust the size of the grant that the Treasury gives to the Scottish Government.

Here is the curious bit

Then came the famous ‘Vow’ which promised to maintain Barnett, and then came the new fiscal framework to deliver greater Scottish Government fiscal autonomy while also protecting the Barnett formula.

The problem is that these developments are starting to show how contradictory Scotland’s devolution settlement is becoming:

  • The ‘Barnett formula’ is a way to adjust the Treasury’s allocation of funds to the Scottish Government. Giving the Scottish Government a greater ability to control taxation reduces the role of the Barnett formula that the party leaders vowed to protect (in part, this only seems like such a contradiction because ‘Barnett’ is often used to describe Scotland’s good financial settlement, not the formula itself).
  • The two key principles underpinning the new fiscal framework – neither government should be disadvantaged by the decision to devolve (the Smith Commission’s ‘no detriment’ principle) and the reforms should not provide greater public services for one area without an equivalent rise in its taxes (‘taxpayer fairness’) – do not get along. As Bell, Eiser, and Phillips argue:

it is impossible to design a block grant adjustment system that satisfies the spirit of the ‘no detriment from the decision to devolve’ principle at the same time as fully achieving the ‘taxpayer fairness’ principle: at least while the Barnett Formula remains in place.

Instead, they present three main options which come closer to one principle and further from the other.

So, to resolve this issue once and for all, the UK Government needs to form an agreement with the Scottish Government (or make a decision based on the extent to which it wants to please the Scottish Government), knowing that it will likely satisfy one policy aim at the expense of the other.

What seems to have happened is (a) an agreement between governments that neither government wants (a ‘compromise’), secured by (b) an agreement to see how it goes for 5 years before revisiting the issue again. In part, this allows the UK Government and the Conservative party to argue that it has delivered ‘the vow’ and put off the big fiscal decision until after the 2016 election.

So, the new framework no longer delivers the advantage of the Barnett formula (the ability to continue for a long period with minimal attention, combining a generous block settlement sort-of-adjusted according to population). Instead, we may be treated to the same tense negotiation and ‘compromise’ every run up to a Scottish Parliament election.

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What happens when we are too distracted by referendums to pay attention to policy?

It is common for people to argue that our obsession with the UK constitution distracts us from the day to day business of policymaking. It was a feature of the Scottish independence referendum and seems to be a feature of the Brexit debate. There are a few variations of the argument, but they seem to relate to two general concerns plus (now) an extra concern for the devolved governments:

(1) central government ministers indulge their obsession with a referendum instead of solving policy problems

(2) other actors (the media, parliament, the interested public) will pay attention to the referendum instead of keeping pressure on ministers to solve policy problems.

(3) the Brexit referendum will overshadow devolved elections.

The Scottish referendum suggests that some of these concerns were misplaced because it provided an opportunity to debate the ‘big questions’ of policy (such as, for example, should Scotland become a social democratic state?) and attracted the interest of parts of the public that usually don’t engage in (party) politics.

Still, some people retained the sense that we were talking about post-independence public services while the services themselves were going to crap (the usual examples relate to education attainment, the NHS, and Police Scotland).

All I want to add to this discussion is this point:

Such arguments presuppose that ministers make a big difference when they pay attention to policy problems, particularly when many potentially-critical audiences are watching them like hawks. In other words, they have the resources (including money, staffing, ideas, cognitive skills, and ‘political will’) to turn around services and close inequalities in outcomes.

There are two main reasons to qualify this assumption.

  1. Policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny fraction of their responsibilities anyway

There are 101 theories and concepts in policy studies which describe the limits to ministerial and central government control. The big message is that policymakers already ignore almost all of the issues for which they could take responsibility (and the ‘semi-sovereign public’ ignores far more). This is not to say that more distractions won’t make a difference. Rather, my point is to reject the binary distinction between total and zero policymaker attention.

  1. Elections can be bigger distractions than referendums

High stakes elections tend to prompt political parties to make promises that are achievable and easy to explain with simple stories. There is not much incentive to tell voters that policy problems (and policymaking systems) are complex, central governments can only do so much to solve them (especially within 5 year electoral terms), and maybe they should delegate a lot of this responsibility to local actors. So, the short term promises often provide far bigger distractions to long term aims.  This is not to say that more distractions won’t make things worse. Rather, my point is to reject the idea that we were half-way to solving life’s big problems before people got obsessed with the constitution. Or maybe my point is that a lot of media and public attention prompts policymakers to do silly things, to try to look like they are trying to solve policy problems. A distraction is not always unwelcome.

I expand on both points in this post, so won’t repeat them here. Still, if you have read a few of my posts now, you might be getting the impression that I just make these same points in each one. If so, my message to you is: thank you for reading a few of my posts. I enjoy the hits.

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The Scottish Parliament election 2016: the talking points so far

It would be tempting to ignore the Scottish Parliament election campaigns in 2016 because the result seems like a foregone conclusion: the SNP will form a majority government for the next 5 years. Yet, let’s not give in to that temptation by confusing the boring predictability of the result with its monumental nature. It will represent the peak of a transformation in Scottish electoral politics since 1999 that almost no-one predicted (apart from the Nostradamus-style harbingers of doom and wild optimists). As a result, it presents an intriguing mix of talking points: some of them relate to the specific issues that have arisen so far, while others are bubbling under the surface.

The big talking point: the likely result 

The SNP’s victory will happen despite an electoral system (‘mixed-member proportional’) designed to be far more proportional than the plurality system of Westminster: 56 seats from regional lists, using the d’Hondt divisor, offset some of the distribution of the 73 constituency seats determined by a plurality vote. Yet, they only make it more proportional. The SNP’s 50% share of the vote secured 56 of 59 MPs (95%) in the 2015 UK General election. If, as seems likely from the polls, it can maintain that level of support in constituency votes, it might already secure a majority before the regional votes are counted (one forecast is a total of 72, or 56%, of seats, compared to Labour’s 32 and Conservatives’ 18).

The likelihood of an SNP majority has produced a weird game of chicken in which we all know what will happen regardless of the campaign but the party leaders still dare each other to declare the result, knowing that admitting defeat opens you to claims of defeatism (as with Conservative leader Ruth Davidson) while hinting at victory wins you the most ‘arrogant’ prize. Further, while the smaller parties mattered in 2003, they have now become a sideshow. The most consistently serious party remains the Scottish Greens which may secure as many (4) seats as the former-coalition-government Scottish Liberal Democrats, with the increasingly comic UKIP likely to receive none.

Talking points in the election so far

The main talking point is that the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 did not settle the constitutional debate. Instead, the main opposition parties (and Scottish Labour in particular) have woven into their 2015 and 2016 campaigns the idea that the SNP will use any election victory to push for a second referendum. Yet, the only plausible trigger (in the short term) relates to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: if most voters in Scotland vote to stay in, and most voters in the UK overall vote to leave, it would ‘almost certainly’ prompt SNP demands for the second vote.

The prospect of a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum also prompted the main UK parties to promise substantially greater devolution (before the May 2016 election) to secure a No vote. So, the Scotland Act 2016 contains provisions to enhance the Scottish Government’s powers, including a greater ability to modify income tax rates and bands and reform some aspects of social security.

Greater devolution has prompted much debate but no resolution on how to use the so-called ‘Scottish rate of income tax’. What could have been a values-driven discussion about the benefits and costs of raising income tax to fund services, or about who should win and lose from taxation changes, has generally turned into a pedantic and (perhaps deliberately) confusing debate about the meaning of ‘progressive’ taxation (David Eiser describes a rise in SRIT as ‘slightly progressive’), the likely income from each 1p change in taxation, and the unintended consequences of greater higher-rate taxation in Scotland.  Further, since we all know the SNP will win the election, it is relatively hard to take seriously the tax plans of the other parties, including Scottish Labour’s planned 1p rise and the Scottish Conservatives’ unfulfilled hopes to reduce it (alongside its proposal to reintroduce tuition fees). Similarly, gone are the days when the Scottish Greens’ more radical income and land tax plans had any chance of success.

The lack of a settled constitution has also contributed to the lack of a proper debate on the SNP’s record in office – which is weird if you consider that, until recently, the main factor in the SNP’s electoral success in 2007 and 2011 is ‘valence politics’, which describes the tendency for political parties to promise similar things and run campaigns on things like the image of their leader, their vision for the future, and their image of governing competence. The SNP did particularly well to maintain an image of competence in 2011, but it is tempting to think that the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon, and the post-referendum bump for the SNP, has made this less of an issue in 2016. Opposition parties have been trying to maximise concerns about the performance of the NHS and Police Scotland, and the SNP’s failure to reduce the ‘attainment gap’, but there is little evidence to suggest that anything sticks – particularly when crises like the Edinburgh schools closures can generate attention but call into question Labour’s record on capital finance up to 2007.

Some important points are often not talking points …

One issue which could have hurt the SNP is ‘fracking’ because there is some internal division in the SNP about the Scottish Government’s decision to maintain a moratorium rather than complete ban on shale oil and gas development (Scottish Labour now supports a ban). Yet, the moratorium, along with with Sturgeon’s recent description of her position as ‘highly sceptical about fracking’ and the decision of the SNP’s leadership not to debate the issue at its annual conference, has meant that it can remain a non-talking point until after the election.

… but sometimes that’s a good thing

Perhaps the most promising non-talking point was Kezia Dugdale’s decision to ‘share with the world that I’m in love with a woman’, generally receive praise, and establish the Scottish Parliament as the home to an unusually large number of LGB party leaders. There is also some evidence to suggest that gender-based equality of selection is ‘catching on’ again (and reinforced by the high number of women in party leadership roles) after a few false dawns. Although the SNP will dominate party politics for years to come, some issues like ‘microcosmic representation’ are bigger than parties.

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Is politics and policymaking about sharing evidence and facts or telling good stories? Two very silly examples from #SP16

Sometimes, in politics, people know and agree about basic facts. This agreement provides the basis on which they can articulate their values, debate policy choices, and sell their choices to a reasonably well informed public. There are winners and losers from the choices, but at least it is based on a process in which facts or evidence play a major part.

Sometimes, people don’t seem to agree on anything. The extent to which they disagree seems wacky (as in the devil shift). So, there is no factual basis for a debate. Instead, people tell stories to each other and the debate hinges on the extent to which (a) someone tells a persuasive story, and (b) you already agree with its ‘moral’ and/ or the person telling you the story.*

Silly example one: the Scottish rate of income tax (SRIT)

The SRIT is a great example because it shows you that people can’t even agree on how to describe the arithmetic underpinning policy choices. My favourite example is here, on how to describe % increases on percentages:

cashley blair m srit

This problem amplifies the more important problem: the income tax is toxic, few politicians want to touch it, and they would rather show you the dire effects of other people using it. Currently, the best way to do this is to worry about the effect of any tax rise on the pay of nurses (almost always the heroes of the NHS and most-uncalled-for victims of policy change). So, if you combine the arithmetic debate with the focus on nurses, you get this:

cashley et al nurses srit

What you make of it will, I think, depend largely on who you trust, such as Calum C for the SNP/ Yes versus Blair M for Labour/ No. Then if you want to read more you can, for example, choose to read some Scottish Labour-friendly analysis of its plans to increase the SRIT by 1p while compensating lower earners (a, b), see it as a disaster not criticised enough by the BBC, or take your pick of two stories on the extent to which it did a ‘U-turn’.

This is before we even get to the big debate! What could have been a values-driven discussion about the benefits and costs of raising income tax to fund services, or about who should win and lose from taxation changes, has generally turned into a pedantic and (deliberately?) confusing debate about the meaning of ‘progressive’ taxation (David Eiser describes a rise in SRIT as ‘slightly progressive’), the likely income from each 1p change in taxation, and the unintended consequences of greater higher-rate taxation in Scotland.

So, your choice is to (a) do a lot of reading and critical analysis to get your head around the SRIT, or (b) decide who to trust to tell you what’s what.

Silly example two: who should you give your ‘second vote’ to?

The SNP will gain a majority in the Scottish Parliament despite an electoral system (‘mixed-member proportional’) designed to be far more proportional than the plurality system of Westminster: 56 seats from regional lists, using the d’Hondt divisor, offset some of the distribution of the 73 constituency seats determined by a plurality vote. Yet, they only make it more proportional. The SNP’s 50% share of the vote secured 56 of 59 MPs (95%) in the 2015 UK General election. If, as seems likely from the polls, it can maintain that level of support in constituency votes, it might already secure a majority before the regional votes are counted.

So, if the SNP wins almost all of the constituency seats, the competition for votes has taken on an unusual dimension: all the other parties will be getting all or most of their seats from the regional vote.

This situation has prompted some debate about the extent to which SNP-voters should (a) vote SNP twice (#bothvotessnp) to secure a very small number of extra seats in the regions where they don’t win all constituency contests, or (b) give their ‘second’/regional vote to a Yes-supporting smaller party like the Scottish Greens or RISE.

Here comes the silly bit. When John Curtice sort-of-seemed-not-really to suggest that people should choose option b (see original report by the ERS, described in The Herald) you’d think that he’d put a bag of shit on the SNP’s doorstep and the ERS had set fire to it and rung the doorbell.

So, unless you are willing to read about the kind of sophisticated calculations discussed in the ERS report, your next choice is to listen to a story about (a) people out to get the heroic SNP by duping voters into increasing the chances of more Union-loving MSPs (e.g. Labour or Conservative) getting in through the back door, or (b) those plucky heroes, such as the Greens or RISE, standing up to the villainous SNP.

In both cases, it is inevitable that many people will base their decisions on such stories, which is why they look so silly but matter so much.


*For the most part, the cause is the ‘complexity’ of the world and our need to adapt to it by ignoring most of it. To do so, we (just like policymakers) use major cognitive short cuts – including our emotional, gut, and habitual responses – to turn too-much information into a manageable amount. This process helps make us susceptible to ‘framing’ when people present that information to us in a particular way.


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Scottish politics

The politics of evidence-based best practice: 4 messages

Well, it’s really a set of messages, geared towards slightly different audiences, and summed up by this table:

Table 1 Three ideal types EBBP.JPG

  1. This academic journal article (in Evidence and Policy) highlights the dilemmas faced by policymakers when they have to make two choices at once, to decide: (1) what is the best evidence, and (2) how strongly they should insist that local policymakers use it. It uses the case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’ to show that it often seems to favour one approach (‘approach 3’) but actually maintains three approaches. What interests me is the extent to which each approach contradicts the other. We might then consider the cause: is it an explicit decision to ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ or an unintended outcome of complex government?
  2. I explore some of the scientific  issues in more depth in posts which explore: the political significance of the family nurse partnership (as a symbol of the value of randomised control trials in government), and the assumptions we make about levels of control in the use of RCTs in policy.
  3. For local governments, I outline three ways to gather and use evidence of best practice (for example, on interventions to support prevention policy).
  4. For students and fans of policy theory, I show the links between the use of evidence and policy transfer.

Further reading (links):

My academic articles on these topics

The Politics of Evidence Based Policymaking

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Prevention policy


Filed under 1000 words, ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy