This post (1) summarises my oral evidence to the Scottish Parliament Finance and Public Administration Committee Inquiry ‘Public Administration – Effective Scottish Government decision-making’, and (2) introduces my report ‘What is effective government?’. While I am the committee’s adviser on this inquiry, the report and this post represent my thoughts (not those of committee members).
My overall impression, of the 28 submissions to the committee, is that they inform a very familiar two-part story:
- There should be clearly defined steps or stages to making decisions, and governments should make use of well-established, rigorous, decision-making tools (the call for systematic policymaking in theory)
- They identify their generally disappointing experiences of unfulfilled reforms and implementation gaps (the absence of systematic policymaking in practice)
In that context, it is worth asking:
- Are these problems specific to Scottish Government (right now), or are they more general and systemic?
- Can we separate specific expectations for Scottish Government from more general expectations about policymaking?
Why these problems are general and systemic
My report identifies two main reasons to expect the same problems in any government (based on theories and studies of policymaking).
First, there is always a gap between simple and idealised models of systematic policymaking and real-world policy processes. We can tell this story as follows:
- Policymakers do not (a) fully understand the problems they face, or (b) control the complex policymaking systems in which they engage.
- They need to be pragmatic (to recognise these limits) but also tell a story of being in charge (to reflect an electoral imperative).
- This imperative to be pragmatic but project central government control (as part of a story of governing competence) is relatively strong in Westminster systems.
Second, governments pursue a large number of worthy ‘effective government’ principles, which seem fine in isolation (and when expressed vaguely), but are contradictory when combined (and turned into concrete measures). In my report, I listed seven principles which map (somewhat) onto the committee’s list of topics:
1. Hold to account the people and organisations responsible for policy.
2. Anticipate and prevent policy problems rather than react to crisis.
3. Avoid power hoarding at the ‘centre’. Co-produce policy with citizens.
4. Ensure policy coherence and policymaking integration.
5. Foster evidence-informed policymaking.
6. Mainstream equity, fairness, or justice across all policy.
7. Ensure that public services deliver public value.
For example, the primacy of national elections concentrates power in the centre, fosters short-term thinking, biases evidence-gathering towards experts, limits consensus seeking, and reduces incentives to learn.
The Scottish Government is no exception to the general rule
This general picture is familiar to students of public policy in Scotland, where a fixation with Scottish Parliament elections, as the main vehicle for accountability, overshadows other aims such as more preventive, decentralised, and co-produced policy processes.
There is also a specific Scottish story, such as how the Scottish Government might pursue (1) policy coherence (for example, via the National Performance Framework) and, (2) co-produced, integrated, and equitable ‘public value’ approaches (via the Scottish model of government or Scottish approach to policymaking).
However, this story has the same ending as many others, recounting a gap between aspiration and reality, followed by a tendency to retell the fictional story rather than focus on what governments can actually do. The result is a lost opportunity to generate new knowledge of – and thoughtful reflection on – what exactly a government does (and if it has policy capacity). It fuels a cycle of disappointment and reinvention rather than proper investigation.
What can the Scottish Government learn?
My report identifies some examples of comparable places where some elements of government are worth examining, including:
- Welsh government and Welsh Centre for Public Policy – on the systematic use of external evidence for policy.
- New Zealand Policy Project – on the pursuit of a formalised and systematic approach to giving good policy advice to ministers.
- Annex A also lists some possibilities regarding international benchmarks and performance indicators.
It is also essential for the Scottish Government to learn from its own experiences as part of a process of continuous development, although a focus on other governments can often take the heat out of debate (since a focus on Scottish policy success is inevitably partisan).
In each case, what would be the likelihood of learning, and about what? My final remark was to suggest that (1) learning about specific initiatives (such as to improve evidence and advice to minsters), is very limited without (2) situating that learning in a much wider systemic perspective.