The ‘Scottish approach’ to Policymaking

This post first appeared on the CCC blog.

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In his chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics, Paul Cairney examines the alleged distinctiveness of Scottish policymaking. These comparisons tend to be with UK government, which ignores the opportunity for wider comparative assessment.

The phrase ‘Scottish approach’ is one of several descriptions of the distinctiveness of Scottish Government policymaking.

First, academics use the phrase ‘Scottish policy style’ to describe the Scottish Government’s reputation for two practices: a consultation style with stakeholders that is relatively inclusive and consensual; and, a governance style that places unusually high levels of trust in the public bodies that deliver policy.

Second, the first Scottish Government Permanent Secretary John Elvidge used the phrase ‘Scottish model of government’ to describe the potential for joined-up or ‘holistic’ government. The model would exploit its relatively small size, and central position in a dense network of public sector and third sector bodies. Ministers and their equivalents in the civil service would have briefs spanning traditional departmental boundaries and come together regularly to coordinate national strategies. They would foster a long-term focus on policy outcomes and reject a tendency to set restrictive and damaging short-term targets. For example, the National Performance Framework (NPF) identifies a broad purpose and strategic objectives which map on to performance measures and agreements with public sector bodies to align their objectives with the NPF.

Third, his successor Peter Housden took forward the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ with reference to three broad principles: to seek improvement in public services via collaborative government; to focus on people’s ‘assets’ (rather than ‘deficits’) when designing policy; and to co-produce policy with the public sector, stakeholders, and service users.

Overall, the ‘Scottish approach’ began as a broad idea about how to govern by consensus in a new era of devolved politics, then developed into a way to pursue: holistic government, an outcomes-based measure of policy success, greater local authority discretion in the delivery of national objectives, and several governance principles built primarily on localism and the further inclusion of service users in the design of public policy.

Is the ‘Scottish approach’ distinctive?

The claim to Scottish distinctiveness tends to relate to a contrast with UK policymaking, which is problematic in two main ways.

First, it downplays the importance of international trends which influence UK and Scottish government. For example, most of these policymaking aims are summed up in the phrase ‘new public governance’ (NPG). NPG describes an international shift of ideas to seek alternatives to the relatively top-down and centralist ‘new public management’ (NPM), and it includes the emphasis on coproduction and collaboration so central to Scottish Government rhetoric.

Second, the Scottish and UK governments both face similar pressures that contribute to rather contradictory policymaking styles. On the one hand, they act pragmatically to recognise the limits to central government powers and harness the benefits of working in partnership with other bodies. On the other hand, they must project an image of governing competence based on strong central control. The overall result in both governments is a tendency to juggle two very different approaches to policymaking.

The chapter discusses two key examples of this contradiction at the heart of policymaking.

The first is a focus on ‘evidence based policymaking’. Each government juggles three ways to use evidence to inform policy and practice: a centralised model, a decentralised model, and a compromise model to combine both elements.

The second example relates these approaches to leadership, in which each model fosters different skills, such as to manage change from the top down, or ‘let go’ and foster collaboration, or provide a mix of direction and encouragement. In each case, the need to maintain democratic accountability via national governments creates a series of potential contradictions, in which policy is driven by the centre but in partnership with local bodies; encouraging those bodies to experiment and take risks, but also intervening to manage risk.

It concludes that the ‘Scottish approach’ should be seen primarily as ‘a statement of aspiration; an attempt to put distance between the Scottish Government and its image of UK government policymaking’. For any government, there is always a major gap between such aspirations and policymaking reality.

The ‘Scottish Approach to Policy Making’ was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 

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