It is commonplace to argue that the Scottish independence referendum has reinvigorated political debate: grabbing the attention of people who would normally not engage; producing high TV audiences for debates; and packing the town halls with people hungry for information. Yet, two problems should give us pause for thought. First, public knowledge of the issues is patchy – as expressed in polls as general uncertainty or incorrect answers to specific questions. Second, public attention to a small number of issues – including the future of a currency Union, Scotland’s membership of the EU, Scotland’s NHS, and Trident – comes at the expense of attention to political and policy processes. The referendum on Scottish independence has not produced the same focus on political reform as the referendum on Scottish devolution.
In the lead up to the referendum in 1997, the proposed Scottish Parliament was at the heart of debates on political reform. Elite support for devolution – articulated by political parties, local governments, and ‘civil society’ groups, via the Scottish Constitutional Convention – was built on the idea of a crisis of legitimation, linked to an image of top-down Westminster politics based on the concentration of government power and marginalisation of Parliament and ‘civil society’. Devolution was accompanied by an electoral system designed to diffuse power among parties, and some measures to help put the Scottish Parliament at the centre of new forms of participative and deliberative democracy. The Consultative Steering Group, a cross-party group with members drawn from ‘civil society’, articulated the principles it would seek to uphold: ‘the sharing of power’ between government, parliament and ‘the people’; accountability of government to parliament and the people; accessibility; and, equal opportunity.
Scottish devolution had an important impact in key areas: producing a more transparent legislature, coalition and minority governments, and increasing the representation of women. Yet, it had a limited impact on ‘power sharing’ and accountability. The Scottish system remains part of the ‘Westminster family’, with a traditional focus on the accountability of ministers to the public via Parliament. This outcome became problematic in several respects: Scottish Parliament committees have limited resources to scrutinise policy and question ministers effectively; they rarely engage in meaningful or direct contact with civil servants; they struggle to gather information on the work of public bodies; and, local authorities generally argue that they are accountable to their electorates, not Parliament. Periods of coalition majority (1999-2007), minority (2007-11) and single party majority (2011-) government have reinforced this image of an often-peripheral body. The Scottish Parliament is a powerful body at the heart of accountability on paper, but not in practice.
Nevertheless, there has been no major debate on the role of the Scottish Parliament since it was established in 1999, and no major reforms have taken place. There have been some individual reports, such as ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max, but nothing like the scale of the SCC. This lack of attention seems significant for three reasons. First, other Parliaments, such as Westminster, have engaged in modernisation during this period. Second, the lead up to the referendum on independence in 2014 seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit its role within Scotland’s independent or further-devolved political system. Yet, if people have discussed the Scottish Parliament, it is largely to confirm that they have no plans to reform (see footnote 2, citing the Scottish Government’s Scotland’s Future).
Third, the Scottish policy process has changed. The focus of the Scottish Government and its partners has changed markedly, towards the importance of ‘outcomes’, rather than ‘inputs’, as the key measure of government success. The Scottish Government plays an overarching role in policymaking: it sets a broad strategy and invites a large number of public bodies to carry it out. Ministers devolve most day to day policymaking to civil servants. The Scottish Government has also moved from the production of short term targets to long term outcomes measures which go beyond the five-year terms of elected office. It encourages localism, respecting the competing mandate of elected local authorities and encouraging them to work with other public bodies through community planning partnerships. This is not a recent event; it has been the approach of the Scottish Government at least as far back as the National Performance Framework, established in 2007, to provide a strategic framework for policy outcomes and invite a range of public bodies to meet its aims.
Until recently, the Scottish Parliament did not respond to these changes. Its procedures and activities are generally focused on inputs to the political system. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees have devoted two to three months per year to the scrutiny of the annual budget bill. In general, this scrutiny has a very narrow focus, with a limited emphasis on pre- or post-legislative scrutiny, and its value is unclear. In many ways, its activities do not seem to match the hopes of the Consultative Steering Group.
Consequently, like Westminster, the Scottish Parliament is part of an apparently simple accountability process: power is concentrated in the hands of ministers, who are accountable to the public through Parliament. Yet, as in Westminster, this simple picture of ministerial accountability is increasingly misleading. The Scottish Government oversees a complex public sector, with a large number of accountability mechanisms, most of which do not involve the Scottish Parliament. As things stand, this will continue regardless of the vote in the referendum. Policy will continue to be made out of the public and parliamentary spotlight.
Referendums on constitutional change in Scotland produce ‘windows of opportunity’ to discuss the future of Scottish politics and policymaking. For example, the Scottish Constitutional Convention – an organization comprising political parties, interest groups, civic and religious leaders – formed in 1989 to promote the principle, and operation, of devolved government. It set much of the agenda during the devolution debates in the 1990s, promoting ‘new politics’, or widespread reform based on a rejection of political practices in ‘old Westminster’. Some of the SCC’s broad aims were met, including a mixed-member proportional system designed to reduce the chance of single party majorities, and encourage some bargaining between parties.
However, the Scottish political system is still part of the ‘Westminster family’, producing a Scottish Government which processes the vast majority of policy, a Scottish Parliament that is generally peripheral to that day-to-day policy process, and a public with limited opportunities for direct influence. As in most countries, most policy is processed in ‘policy communities’ or ‘subsystems’, which bring together civil servants, interest groups, and representatives of an extensive public sector landscape, including local, health, police, fire service and other service-specific bodies. This generally takes place out of the public spotlight and often with minimal parliamentary involvement. Indeed, few non-specialists could describe how these bodies interact and where key decisions on Scottish policy are being made.
Further, the Scottish public sector landscape is changing. The Scottish Government has, since 2007, produced a National Performance Framework and rejected the idea that it can, or should, micromanage public sector bodies using performance measures combined with short term targets. Instead, it encourages them to cooperate to produce long term outcomes consistent with the Framework, through vehicles such as Community Planning Partnerships. Further, following its commitment to a ‘decisive shift to prevention’, it has begun to encourage reforms designed to harness greater community and service-user design of public services.
This is important background which should inform the current independence debate, most of which focuses on external relations and neglects Scotland’s internal dynamics. The independence agenda gives us a chance to evaluate the devolution experience so far, and consider what might change if there is independence or further devolution. As far as possible, we should focus on the Scottish political system as a whole, including the relationship between the Scottish Parliament, public participation, the Scottish Government, and a wide range of public sector bodies, most of which are unelected.
Consider, for example, if the system follows its current trajectory, towards a greater reliance on local governance. This development has great potential to undermine traditional forms of parliamentary scrutiny. The Scottish Parliament already lacks the ability to gather information independently – it tends to rely on bodies such as the Scottish Government to provide that information. It does not get enough information from the Scottish Government about what is going on locally. Scotland lacks the top-down performance management system that we associate with the UK Government, and a greater focus on long term outcomes removes an important and regular source of information on public sector performance. Local and health authorities also push back against calls for detailed information. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability.
Local decision-making also has the potential to change the ‘subsystem’ landscape. Currently, most Scottish policy is processed by civil servants who consult regularly with pressure participants. Most ‘lobbying’ to the Scottish Government is done by (a) other parts or types of Government and (b) professional and interest groups. Civil servants rely on groups for information and advice, and they often form long term, efficient and productive relationships based on trust and regular exchange. When policy is made at the Scottish level, those groups organise at the Scottish level. The Scottish Government is a key hub for policy relationships; it coordinates networks, referees disputes, and gathers information and advice at a central level.
One consequence of devolving more power locally is that these groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. Such a shift would produce new winners and losers. The well-resourced professional groups can adapt their multi-level lobbying strategies, while the groups working on a small budget, only able to lobby the Scottish Government, will struggle.
Such developments may prompt discussions about three types of reform. The first relates to a greater need to develop local participatory capacity, to take on the functions performed less by these national organisations. For example, the ERS Scotland’s suggestion is that more local devolution could produce a more active local population. Even so, we still need to know more about how and why people organise. For example, local communities may organise in an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area as they arise; to engage in a small part of the policy process at a particular time. They do not have the resources to engage in a more meaningful way, compared to a Parliament and collection of established groups which maintain a constant presence and develop knowledge of the details of policies over time.
The second relates to governance reforms which focus primarily on the relationship between elected local authorities, a wide range of unelected public bodies, and service users. There is some potential to establish a form of legitimacy through local elections but, as things stand, local authorities are expected to work in partnership with unelected bodies – not hold them to account. There is also some scope to develop a form of user-driven public service accountability, but separate from the electoral process and with an uncertain focus on how that process fits into the wider picture.
The third relates to parliamentary reform. So far, the Scottish Parliament has not responded significantly to governance trends and a shift to outcomes focused policymaking. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees devote two to three months per year to the scrutiny of the annual budget bill. In general, this scrutiny has a very narrow focus, with a limited emphasis on pre- or post-legislative scrutiny, and its value is unclear. It has the potential to change its role. It can shift its activities towards a focus on Scottish Government policy in broader terms, through the work of inquiries in general and its finance and audit functions in particular.
Yet, while there are many issues still to be resolved, they are unlikely to be addressed before the referendum in September. Proposals for political reform only make sporadic appearances on the referendum agenda, and developments in governance tend to take place beyond the public spotlight. Scotland has its own political system, but it is one which is developing in a piecemeal way. A Yes vote in September may mark a radical shift in constitutional politics, but not in the way Scotland does politics.
The prospect of Scottish independence, or major constitutional change, provides a ‘window of opportunity’ for other political reforms. People feel, quite rightly, that now is the time to push their ideas, as part of a package of reforms unlikely to be repeated for a generation. It’s now or never (or, at least, much later). You can see that in today’s Herald piece ‘A chance to revitalise our local democracy’ which pushes for more devolution of powers to local government (or, at least, those in Glasgow and the islands councils) – a push that is broadly supported by the ERS’ Democracy Max. Perhaps the difference is that the ERS considers this idea as part of a whole package, which is better than considering each bit on a separate day. Still, there are at least two unresolved issues to consider alongside such reforms:
1. What would be the role of the Scottish Parliament? Currently, Scotland has a fairly traditional Westminster system in which the Scottish Government is accountable to the Scottish Parliament. The experience of 14 years of devolution (and the last 6 in particular) is that the Parliament struggles to hold the Government to account because: (a) it does not get enough information about what is going on; and, (b) local authorities say they are not accountable to the Parliament because they have their own elections and mandates. This is despite the idea that Scottish Parliamentary committees are ‘powerful’ in relation to their Western European counterparts. More devolution to local authorities would exacerbate this tension between local and national accountability. In turn, it should prompt us to think about what the Parliament is there to do. Is it there to consider the Scottish Government’s broad strategies or should it get its hands dirty looking at the outcomes?
2. What would be the role of Scottish-level groups? The evidence to date suggests that most ‘lobbying’ to the Scottish Government and Parliament is done by (a) other parts of Government and (b) professional and interest groups – representing local authorities, local authority professions, the medical and health professions, businesses, business groups, the third sector, and so on. When policy is made at the Scottish level, those groups organise at the Scottish level – establishing bases in or near Edinburgh and spending their ‘lobbying’ time in consultation with civil servants. One consequence of devolving power locally is that these groups must reorganise, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. For example, the SCVO role may shift from a national voice for hundreds of small groups to a national resource to aid those groups when they engage locally. There is nothing wrong with that, but it should prompt us to consider the local dynamics of consultation in at least two ways. First, there are likely to be clear winners and losers in this new setup. The well-resourced professional groups will be OK. However, the groups working on a shoestring budget, with one or two members of paid staff, only able to lobby the Scottish Government and Parliament, will struggle. In other words, the reforms may benefit the ‘usual suspects’. Second, who will take the place of the smaller groups? The ERS’ suggestion is that more local devolution produces a more active local population, but we need to know more about how and why people organise. It seems intuitive that local communities may organise on an ad hoc way to address major issues in their area, but the thing about professional groups is that they have a constant presence and that they often get a handle on the details of policies over time (at a level, such as Scotland, which allows a relatively efficient way of doing things, with fewer overlaps).
The Electoral Reform Society Scotland has published its very interesting report Democracy Max: An Inquiry into the Future of Scottish Democracy. The tone is set with the statement that ‘politics is too important to be left to politicians’. It is reinforced by the broader suggestion that politics is ‘broken’ . The idea is that representative government is flawed. It is not enough to elect politicians to represent us in Parliament. We also need a more direct link between politics, policymaking and ‘the people’. ‘Apathy is a myth’ and people just need the right opportunities to get involved.
This is a familiar refrain in the UK, especially after the MP expenses scandal in 2009. It also has a special place in Scotland. The pursuit of constitutional change is now accompanied by the pursuit of alternative forms of democracy. It happened before 1997 and it is happening again before 2014. Let’s think about that for a minute: why would we need this debate and reform twice in under twenty years? Why, if we had the debate about politics being broken in the 1990s, do we need to fix it now? The optimistic answer is that no-one fixed Scottish politics – or they just did a patchy job which needs to be re-done (see p.49). The pessimistic answer is that Scottish politics cannot or will not be fixed. Representative government is here to stay, warts and all.
We can explore these possibilities by comparing the ‘new politics’ in the Democracy Max proposals with the ‘new politics’ in the 1990s (as promoted by bodies such as cross-party and ‘civil society’ group, the Scottish Constitutional Convention, SCC and the Consultative Steering Group, CSG, set up by the UK Government to establish the Scottish Parliament’s standing orders and principles). We can identify: (a) the similarities in tone and substance between the reports; (b) why things are not likely to change despite the hopes expressed in such reports; and/ or (c) what would need to happen to produce greater success second time round.
How do you challenge the role of political parties *and* get their help? The SCC involved parties (primarily Labour, Liberal Democrat and to-be-Green), noting that ‘It is the instinct of political parties to disagree with one another, and the instinct of civic groups like the churches, the trade unions and others to be impatient with the preoccupations of politicians’. One of its stated successes was taking the time to hammer out a deal between parties and groups – an agreement deemed necessary for the success of its proposals in Scotland (although devolution policy was the responsibility of the UK Government). The ERS makes clear that it is an independent body, not a political party, helping to produce ‘a vision informed by people not politicians’ (pp6-7). The obvious question that arises is: who will turn its vision into reality? The devolution experience suggests that political parties and governments were the gatekeepers to political reform.
Will more venues produce better representatives? One tentative solution by the ERS is to provide resources (such as grants) to reduce the barriers for people to stand for election – to address the stated problem that people generally seek election only through parties. At the same time, they propose more local venues for election – a strong local government underpinned by further devolution to smaller units and/ or “’Mini-publics’ – deliberative local groups working alongside representative democracy, empowering people to run their own towns and villages”. The ERS perhaps have this sort of thing in mind (this isn’t just a wee joke; I really like the Gilmore Girls):
The ERS suggests that people who tend to be uninvolved in, or feel excluded from, national politics may be more likely to get involved in local politics. Indeed, this local involvement may be a springboard to local and national campaigns. There are perhaps two main problems which are partly addressed in the report. First, existing elected ‘elites’ may not share this enthusiasm for sharing power. Second, existing political parties may simply use these new venues as springboards for their own candidates. There is great potential for more layers of government populated by more representatives of parties (something that many of us may associate with the US). The ERS may or may not be right that ‘apathy is a myth’ but they do not show us how the non-partisan citizen can turn her or his newfound enthusiasm into a political project, engaging peers and attracting voters.
How could and should you give ‘more power to the people’? The alternative to more people involved in elected politics is some variation of a citizen jury in which people are selected to represent a local population. This presents two issues to explore. First, the production of a quota-style jury may solve one problem of the former Scottish Civic Forum. It was a self-selecting group, producing many of the old biases – based on gender, race and ethnicity – that new forms of democracy are there to challenge. A quota system gives us the ability to select people according to the most recognised social divisions. However, there is a danger that we are confusing diversity with representativeness, or diversity of opinion with a representative spread of opinion. Our hope is perhaps that people with certain characteristics represent people with a similar background, but I wonder how far we would go to make sure the system works (or, perhaps I am using the wrong standard here; for example, the substantial representation of women in Parliament is about much more than representing views or paying attention to certain issues).
Second, we need to think about how an unelected body will interact with an elected body. Which is the more legitimate actor here? Despite the general talk of distrust in politicians, we could assume that elected governments would make the final decision (and this seems to be the argument of the ERS when discussing juries). This may involve a decision that contradicts the views expressed by selected bodies, since politics is often about leadership and making unpopular decisions. Policymaking is also about evidence as well as opinion, and it usually involves gathering opinions, evidence and considering the unexpressed opinion from the latent public. In this context, it is difficult to know the status of the new “diversity of ‘witnesses’ to provide evidence”. If the ERS is simply making a call for more opinions, good, but this is really about giving a voice to some people rather than power to the people.
The ERS goes further when promoting the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly – a selected body that could be given a statutory function beyond mere consultation. This may involve a ‘new form of legitimacy’ (p52) beyond the world of elected representatives; a Citizens’ Chamber could have the power to ‘veto’ decisions made by the executive (p51). The problem here is that there is not enough discussion of the difference between the role of a new assembly as a forum for public discussion and as a policymaking body. The ERS calls for a discussion of new forms of legitimacy without demonstrating how an unelected body would be legitimate in the eyes of the public. There is also no demonstration that selecting people using quotas and then putting them in the same room will produce a deliberative effect in which people use reason to persuade others. They suggest that party politics limits the ability of MSPs to perform this role, but do not demonstrate that the absence of overt electoral partisanship will produce something different. In effect, we are comparing the problems of the existing system with the possibilities of a new one. This is not a good comparison.
A better comparison is based on the experience of the past. For example, the ERS’ case may be more convincing if it can say how a new Citizens’ Assembly would be an improvement on the old Scottish Civic Forum – beyond the idea that it would be selected from above rather than self-selected (and why would two-thirds be retired or unemployed?). Interestingly, the ERS report sometimes betrays the problem of forum-based advice. It collects a range of opinions without always choosing between them or considering how to prioritise aims or if the aims expressed by some contradict those expressed by others. There is perhaps an implicit belief that politics is about consensus seeking and compromise; that by talking we can come to an agreement that suits both parties to some extent (so the report would be the start of a conversation). If so, I don’t buy it. It is equally convincing to say that politics is about winning and losing; by talking we get other people to agree with, or oppose less, our decisions.
How do we stop ‘vested interests’ having too much power? By ‘vested interests’, the ERS is describing the links between money and power, such as when people with a privileged background gain privileged access to government, people give large donations to parties and expect something in return, or when private companies use their resources to influence disproportionately (and benefit financially from) public policy. I think we can all agree that this is a bad thing. So far, so good. The SCC was accompanied by the idea of getting beyond the ‘usual suspects’ – the well-resourced groups most likely to be consulted by governments during policymaking. These are different things. The first discussion implies private people and businesses being dodgy, sometimes aided by corrupt politicians. The second may include groups representing doctors, nurses, teachers, charities and local government. On the other hand, in both cases we may be talking about ‘self interested advocacy’ which is an almost-inescapable (and often very useful) part of politics. I don’t think that the ERS suggests that advocacy is necessarily a bad thing. Instead, it is the stuff of politics: if we are affected by politics we get mobilised and engage directly. This is as true for community groups seeking to protect their community as to doctors protecting their hospitals or businesses protecting their profits.
In that context, it is difficult to see the effect of a lobbying bill (one proposed solution). It will not stop advocacy, but make some meetings more visible to the public. The public (or perhaps some people in some parts of some media) may then be asked to decide which meetings are legitimate. This works to some extent when MSPs have to declare their expenses (pp85-8) (although perhaps less well when declaring their interests), but advocacy is a bit different. Companies using money to secure outcomes is one thing, but companies giving information and advice is another. We must also remember the importance of winning and losing. Consider, for example, the idea that we limit the activities of lobbying firms – this may simply benefit those groups with the resources to fund their own lobbying. Corporate lobbyists are not just employed by big business – they are also used by groups unable to maintain their own advocacy staff. ‘Vested interests’ will not be removed by legislation, they will just regroup.
What is so wrong with political parties and representative government? An old argument by Grant Jordan and Linda Stevenson is that by talking up ‘new politics’ we produce two problems: more disenchantment with representative democracy (which is here to stay) and alternative forms of democracy (which is hyped up to the point that it will always seem to fail). What we need to remember is that parties and elections serve a purpose. Parties provide a way for people with shared ideas to coordinate their activity. The heated debate between parties can provide information to the public. Adversarialism serves a purpose – it exposes important differences and encourages people to make choices which produce winners and losers. Parties produce manifestos allowing the electorate to choose according to their beliefs. This benefit of representative democracy tends to be downplayed in discussion of new politics because we are looking for faults to justify reforms. I reckon that we could make an equally convincing case for representative democracy based on the flaws of direct participation. A more honest assessment of the pros and cons of all forms of democratic participation would produce a very different type of debate on the future of Scottish politics.
How politics works. The ERS makes some very bold claims, including reference to the ‘inability of unreformed majoritarian and representative systems of democracy to answer the demands of popular uprisings around the world’ (p12) and a ‘Falling turnout in elections’ which ‘is not an apathetic response of a disinterested public. To many it is a very rational response to their increasing distrust in and alienation from traditional politics’. In such cases, it is important to be clear about the meaning of ‘traditional politics’. In this case, it probably just means that we don’t like the idea of MPs or MSPs being too corrupt, too blinkered to the facts or public opinion or too adversarial in Parliament.
However, for me, ‘traditional politics’ is also about the practices that we should expect in any relevant political system. The public, Parliament and government ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of public policy. So they promote a very small number of issues to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest. The consequence is that most policy is made out of the public spotlight by civil servants engaging with organisations (such as interest groups, businesses, other parts of government). Those organisations trade information and advice for access to the political system. They often form trust-based relationships allowing groups to become involved in policymaking on a regular basis.
This is the context for any ‘new politics’ initiatives. Parliaments often seem ineffectual because there are 129 MSPs overseeing the work of 500,000 public employees. In that context, MSPs may be doing a good job at raising issues and providing a forum for deliberation (from the highly charged theatre of First Minister’s Questions to the more business-like inquiries in committees). Similarly, any new Citizens’ Assembly, elected or unelected, will be engaging with issues that represent a tiny proportion of government policy. They will shine a light on one house in a large city. If we expect more than that, we will be disappointed. Give it 20 more years and a new report will again say that politics is broken.
New Politics revisited. Still, the ERS report is valuable because it challenges us to think about the success of the original devolution reforms and consider the need for further reform. This type of discussion only seems possible when accompanied by a big event such as the prospect of further constitutional change. All I suggest is that we consider the potential drawbacks to a rejection of past decisions based on the assumption that old initiatives failed. If our expectations are too high, all initiatives will fail.
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.