Tag Archives: Government

Why do governments promote but fail to deliver their radically new ‘preventive’ policy agendas?

Prevention represents the most important social policy agenda in modern history, but governments do not know how to take it forward. In the name of prevention, the UK and Scottish Governments propose to radically change policy and policymaking across the whole of government. Their simple description of ‘prevention policy’ is: a major shift in resources, from the delivery of reactive public services to solve acute problems, to the prevention of those problems before they occur. The results they promise are transformative, to address three crises in politics: a major reduction in socioeconomic equalities by focusing on their ‘root causes’; a solution to unsustainable public spending which is pushing public services to breaking point; and, new forms of localised policymaking, built on community and service user engagement, to restore trust in politics.

Yet, they may never fulfil their aims. We do not identify the usual implementation or expectations gap, in which policymakers only fulfil some of their objectives. Rather, there is great potential for governments to pursue contradictory policies at the complete expense of their prevention agendas. Their most important domestic policy agenda may never get off the ground.

Why do governments fail to deliver on such a massive scale?

We go beyond the usual cynical answer at the heart of low trust in politics and politicians: ‘politicians always make promises they know they won’t keep’. This assertion can only take us so far, partly because governments tend to articulate pledges to allow them to demonstrate success in government, and most governments fulfil a high proportion of pre-election pledges (Bara, 2005). They rarely propose specific policies that they know are too difficult to achieve. This is what makes the pursuit of prevention policies puzzling: why would they make a specific and enthusiastic commitment to an almost impossible policy agenda?

Our simple answer is that, when they make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise prevention, they face several fundamental problems in policymaking, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute resources and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims regarding the maintenance of existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. Or, more importantly, policymakers may soon think that their task is impossible.  Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution.

To follow this work, please see:

https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/prevention/

 

Leave a comment

Filed under agenda setting, ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Prevention policy, public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Case studies: early years, compulsory, further, and higher education #POLU9SP

This is the third of three posts which use case studies of cross-cutting and specific policy areas to add more depth to our discussion of Scottish politics and policymaking.

One of the SNP Government’s main aims is to abolish inequalities in education attainment. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon put it in this stark way in a speech in Wester Hailes in August:

‘My aim – to put it bluntly – is to close the attainment gap completely. It will not be done overnight – I accept that. But it must be done. After all, its existence is more than just an economic and social challenge for us all. It is a moral challenge. Indeed, I would argue that it goes to the very heart of who we are and how we see ourselves as a nation’.

This specific aim raises important questions about the likely success of such policies when governments (a) seek to reduce the impact, not existence, of socioeconomic inequalities, (b) recognise the limits of their powers, and (c) make choices which seem to undermine their aims. In other words, we need to compare these high expectations with other statements, expectations, and policies pursued in other parts of education and government.

Sturgeon’s uncompromising language is important for three reasons

First, it implies that governments can have this profound level of influence on socio-economic outcomes. It reminds me of two former ambitions of the post-war UK governments: to maintain ‘full employment’, an aim long abandoned by both UK political parties; and to reduce health inequalities by setting up a National Health Service, an ambition exposed as unfulfilled by almost every major publication since the Black Report in 1980 (see also the previous lecture on health). These days, ministers don’t tend to make such bold statements of their likely success (for good reason).

Second, we should remember the point that normally remains unsaid: the SNP-led Scottish Government, like the UK Government, has no stated ambition to go to the ‘root cause’ of the problem to reduce the socio-economic inequalities through a far more redistributive tax and benefits system. It is not yet possible for the Scottish Government to take an approach, often linked to the idea of ‘Nordic’ social democracy, to combine (a) spending decisions based on an appeal to universal service provision, and (b) redistribution through fiscal policy. Instead, there is great potential for inconsistent UK/ Scottish strategies: the Scottish Government to oversee a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (on universal free services with no means testing) while the UK Government maintains a tax and benefits policy that many people will perceive to be insufficiently redistributive. Nor has the SNP made a firm commitment to redistribution in the event of Scottish independence in the future.

Instead, in almost all cases, we are talking instead about the use of public service delivery to mitigate their effects: a strategy that relies largely on the idea of ‘prevention’ policies to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives – through interventions such as parenting programmes – to improve their life chances.

Policymakers’ language is normally more realistic

Third, it is a language that stands out from most other Scottish Government discussions of education attainment, which reflect a more careful, or less ambitious, focus on realistic progress and change at the margins (as well as the continuous reminder of the Scottish Government’s limited policymaking powers while it remains part of the UK Government system).

One aspect of the more careful language relates to the limitations of government, and Scottish Government in particular. In February 2015, Sturgeon stated: ‘We must do all we can within the powers and resources we have to narrow the gap and drive up standards at all levels’.

This statement accompanied Sturgeon’s announcement of a £25m per year (over 4 years) scheme to encourage new initiatives and learn from success stories such as the London Challenge, a project driven by a similar ‘moral imperative’, and combining a focus on leadership/ collaboration and the relative performance in schools situated in areas with similar socio-economic backgrounds.

Sturgeon followed up this announcement with a focus on the partial return of testing pupils at key stages in schools. This plan forms part of a National Improvement Framework for Scottish education, which ‘will ensure that we are making progress in closing the gap in attainment between those in our most and least deprived areas’.

These decisions will take time to play out, and will involve some Scotland-specific debates about more uniform testing. Testing in this way is a strategy that was previously rejected in Scotland, and opposed by teaching groups, largely because of its association with a system in England built increasingly on league tables of performance, increased school autonomy (from local authorities), competition, and parent/ consumer choice. In other words, note the symbolic as well as substantive importance of testing. However, it may be necessary to have some kind of testing regime to gather data to allow the Scottish Government to demonstrate progress in attainment at key stages.

Is this new aim consistent with older Scottish Government choices?

Education policy sums up the political limitations to broad strategies such as ‘prevention’. The broad idea of ‘early intervention’, to make an impact on people’s lives as early as possible, to help reduce inequalities and the costs of public services, enjoys magnificent levels of cross-party support. Yet, it competes badly with more specific political commitments with the potential to undermine these broad aims.

In Scotland, the best example is current policy on free tuition fees in Universities which, in the absence of redistributive fiscal policy, and the presence of an attainment gap, reinforces inequalities in education three-fold. The first relates to the reduced likelihood of University attendance in school leavers from a deprived background. Lower educational attainment is linked strongly to poverty, and Scotland exhibits a significant gap in attainment in key areas.

Second, as Riddell et al argue, funding inequalities are often masked by a ‘universal’ approach in which higher education is free to eligible Scottish students. Yet, the absence of tuition fees benefits the middle classes disproportionately, while the debt burden is higher on poorer students. The maintenance of University funding also seems to come at the expense of the college places more likely to be filled by students from lower income backgrounds.

Third, there is a famous description of education spending by James Heckman, who argues that spending on early intervention and pre-school education is far more effective in reducing inequalities than spending on schools and universities (an argument that seems to be accepted by the Scottish Government). So, although the Scottish Government has made a commitment to extend funding on pre-school provision and early intervention programmes, these efforts at ‘transformational’ change compete with resources to maintain University funding.

Is there much money available for attainment and early intervention?

The new agenda on abolishing the attainment gap in schools has the potential to address only one of these issues, and it is potentially undermined by the high financial costs of the commitment to maintain other policies such as free tuition fees. Further, most of the real rise in education spending since devolution – e.g. 46% from 2000-11 – relates primarily to a combination of a new teacher contract and a commitment to a target of 53000 teachers, in part to further related targets such as on reduced primary school class sizes (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 229). In the past, when challenged on the value for money of such initiatives (in the early to mid-2000s), the then First Minister Jack McConnell defended the policy as a way to aid industrial relations and overall education attainment without identifying progress on inequalities in attainment (Cairney, 2011: 194). These policies continue (and take up most education resources) at the same time as new initiatives on inequalities.

Overall, I expect that we will look back on this one speech – on the ‘moral challenge’ to ‘close the attainment gap completely’ – as an outlier. It is an aim that sounds impressive as a rhetorical device, but it is not backed up by a coherent set of public policies designed to fulfil that end (at least in my lifetime).

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

Case studies: prevention and early intervention to address austerity and inequality #POLU9SP

This is the first of three posts which use case studies of cross-cutting and specific policy areas to add more depth to our discussion of Scottish politics and policymaking.

We begin with a broad focus on ‘prevention’ policy for 4 reasons:

  1. It is a major Scottish Government priority, to use ‘prevention’ and ‘early intervention’ to reduce socioeconomic inequalities and/ or public service costs.
  2. It is an integral part of the ‘Scottish approach to policymaking’, with a strong emphasis on the changes to joined-up national government and partnerships in local government.
  3. It highlights multi-level policymaking and key overlaps in Scottish and UK Government responsibilities.
  4. We can compare the Scottish Government’s initial statement – committing itself to a ‘decisive shit to prevention’ – to actual outcomes.

But what is prevention policy?

Broadly, prevention and ‘preventative spending’ describe a range of policies designed to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives to improve their wellbeing and reduce demand for acute or reactive public services. The argument is that too much government spending is devoted to services to address severe social problems at a late stage. The aim is for governments to address a wide range of longstanding problems – including crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, and unemployment – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive.

Prevention policy is described periodically as the solution to three major crises in politics.

  1. If we don’t make fundamental changes to the way we fund and deliver services they will go bust.

Prevention symbolises the desire to shift from expensive demand-led reactive services – such as acute care hospitals, jails, and police and social work interventions for ‘troubled families’ – towards intervening as early as possible in people’s lives to improve their life chances and reduce their reliance on the state. The classic intervention may be a public health policy to encourage healthy behaviour, or an early intervention programme to improve the life chances of teenage mothers and their children, but prevention is broad enough to include a campaign to reduce falls among older people, aimed at keeping people out of NHS beds.

  1. Prevention policies can reduce major inequalities within society.

The broad aim is to address the ‘root causes’ of social problems – such as poverty, social exclusion, and poor accommodation – while specific projects focus on early interventions, such as pre-school provision and parenting programmes, to address major gaps in key indicators, such as education attainment, that can be identified from a young age.

  1. Prevention is a solution to modern crises of government.

A prevention philosophy goes hand in hand with a governance philosophy which identifies the failures of top-down centralist government. The general rhetoric is about policy failure when governments try to do things to you, in favour of making policy with you. It comes with a commitment to: ‘holistic’ government in which we foster cooperation between, and secure a common aim for, departments, public bodies and stakeholders; ‘localism’, or fostering the capacity of local communities to tailor national policies to their areas;  tailoring public services to their users, encouraging a focus on the ‘assets’ of individuals, and inviting users to participate and ‘co-produce’ their services; a shift from simplistic short term targets and performance management towards meaningful long term outcomes-based measures of policy success and population wellbeing; as well as some reliance on ‘evidence based policy making’ to identify which interventions produce the most benefit and deserve investment.

How does prevention relate to the ‘Scottish approach’?

In other words, prevention policies generally combine specific ‘interventions’ with the broad governance principles, including ‘localism’ and the inclusion of users in the design of public services, that we discussed in relation to the ‘Scottish approach’ (but which is also pursued, in different ways, by the UK government). For example, the Scottish Government pursues prevention policies primarily via Community Planning Partnerships and the Single Outcome Agreements produced largely by local authorities.

Have a look again at the descriptions of the Scottish approach by Elvidge and Housden (including Elvidge’s belief that ‘traditional policy and operational solutions’ based on a ‘target driven approach’ would not produce the major changes in policy and policymaking required to address major problems such as inequalities).

What aspects of ‘prevention’ does the Scottish Government control?

The UK government controls monetary and fiscal policies, largely determining the budget used by the Scottish Government to spend and invest, and limiting its ability to redistribute income to address economic inequalities. It controls most aspects of social security, including the ability to address inequalities through direct payments, and determine the rules relating to benefits and unemployment.

Therefore, although the Scottish Government has primary responsibility for most areas of delivery relevant to prevention – such as health, education, housing, local government, and criminal justice – as well as some aspects of economic regeneration and employability, it does not have the responsibility to ‘join up’ taxation, social security, and the delivery of public services. For example, its ability to address health and education inequalities by using taxation policies to address income inequalities is very limited (even after proposed changes in the Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016). It could not reform the benefits system to supplement its powers to influence ‘employability’ policy, or emulate the UK Government’s attempts to pass on social security savings to the local authorities implementing its ‘troubled families’ programme.

How does it fit in with the bigger picture of policy change since devolution?

Although the Scottish Government referred rarely to ‘prevention’ before 2010, it identified several ways to address inequalities. From 1999, it began to address ‘social inclusion’, which ‘become a shorthand label to refer to individuals alienated from economic, political, and social processes due to circumstances such as unemployment, poor skills, low incomes, poor neighbourhoods, bad health and lack of access to childcare’ (McGarvey and Cairney, 2008: 211). The most direct responses, to encourage employability or provide social security benefits, were UK responsibilities, and the Scottish Government relied on UK Government’s policies such as ‘welfare to work, the minimum wage and the Working Families Tax Credit’ (2008: 211).

The Scottish Government’s main response was to address disadvantages by focusing on economic regeneration in specific geographical areas, and reducing ‘unequal access to services such as education, health and housing’ (2008: 210). Its approach to governance reflected a developing ‘Scottish approach’, with an emphasis on social inclusion as a cross-departmental theme and the development of ‘Social Inclusion Partnerships’ (SIPs) which resembled CPPs (2008: 211).

Yet, overall, Scottish social inclusion policy did not differ markedly from the UK Government’s ‘social exclusion’ initiatives, and both governments have continued to promote concepts such as community and individual resilience rather than push for redistributive policies to address exclusion.

Further, the Scottish Government shared with the UK Government a tendency to focus on high profile issues or policies designed to improve outcomes overall without necessarily reducing inequalities of outcome (see the next two lectures/ posts on health and education).

Is there an implementation gap? Or, how do outcomes relate to initial expectations?

Until policymakers make sense of prevention, and turn it into a series of specific policies, it remains little more than an idiom – ‘prevention is better than cure’ – with little effect on government policy.

Although it is probably too early to detect an implementation gap associated with the ‘decisive shift’ in 2011, we can identify the great potential for unfulfilled expectations  based on the lack of progress associated with previous efforts. For example, the Christie Commission, which set the Scottish Government’s new prevention agenda in 2011, stated that:

on most key measures social and economic inequalities have remained unchanged or become more pronounced … This country is a paradoxical tapestry of rich resources, inventive humanity, gross inequalities, and persistent levels of poor health and deprivation … In education, the gap between the bottom 20 per cent and the average in learning outcomes has not changed at all since devolution. At the same time, the gap in healthy life expectancy between the 20 per cent most deprived and the 20 per cent least deprived areas has increased from 8 to 13.5 years and the percentage of life lived with poor health has increased from 12 to 15 per cent since devolution. The link between deprivation and the likelihood of being a victim of crime has also become stronger.

However, note the ‘bottom up’ element to this new agenda: does it make sense to identify the top-down idea of an implementation gap, when the Scottish Government is so keen to set a broad strategy and delegate policymaking responsibility? For me, this is a fascinating dilemma for governments: how to they ‘let go’ of policymaking and make sure that their broad aims are met in a meaningful way?

We can explore these issues in more depth in the next two posts which focus on two of the most devolved policy areas: health and education.

See also: Can the Scottish Government pursue ‘prevention policy’ without independence?

 

Leave a comment

Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

The implementation of policy in Scotland #POLU9SP

There are two classic ways to describe and try to explain policy implementation: top-down and bottom-up (see also the policy cycle).

top down bottom up

We can focus on these descriptions of policy implementation to make two points relevant to our discussion so far:

  1. You might think that the ‘Scottish policy style’ and ‘Scottish approach’ produce fewer problems of implementation, but they produce different problems.
  2. 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:

  1. Its public sector landscape often appears to be less fragmented.
  2. It is less likely to oversee a ‘top-down’ policy style with unintended consequences (note the potential confusion over the meaning of top-down).
  3. 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.

1 Comment

Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

The effect of constitutional change on politics and policymaking #POLU9SP

This is one of two opportunities in the course to consider the role of further constitutional change. In this lecture, we can explore the changes associated with Scotland Bills (and their causes). In the final lecture, we can take a step back and consider how much the territorial nature of the constitution/ political system compares with ‘universal’ aspects of the policy process.

The Scotland Act 1998 set up the modern Scottish Parliament, outlining its new institutions (including the electoral system) and policy responsibilities. Although I have tried to qualify-to-death the idea that Scottish devolution changed policymaking in Scotland, this was the big one. At the heart of our discussions of the ‘Scottish policy style’ is the knowledge that the Scottish Government has significant policymaking responsibilities and it uses its powers in often-distinctive ways.

The Act also represents the initial ‘settlement’ arising from a decades-long push for political devolution in Scotland. However, it did not prove to be the final settlement. Instead, the UK Government and ‘unionist’ political parties have sought ways to extend devolution enough to maintain Scottish support for the union.

Note the role and endurance of the ‘democratic deficit’ argument

In the 1990s, devolution was often described as a way to solve the ‘democratic deficit’. The charge was that people in Scotland voted for one party in a UK general election (Labour) but received another (Conservative) on many occasions.

This problem was exacerbated by a long spell of Thatcher-led government (1979-1990). A frequent argument is that devolution (made possible by a vote in 1979) could have ‘defended Scotland from Thatcherism’, and allowed the maintenance of Scottish traditions of participative democracy and social democracy. In that context, the new Scottish Parliament represented the idea that Scottish devolution would cushion the blow of any future UK Conservative government.

Yet, as we saw during the independence debate, devolution was often described by Yes supporters as a poor solution to the democratic deficit because the UK Government still makes decisions – particularly on the reform of the welfare state – which have a profound effect on Scotland, with little scope for the Scottish Government to produce an alternative.

The Scotland Acts of 2012 and 2016

The Scotland Act 2012 amended the Scottish Parliament’s and Scottish Government’s responsibilities. It represents the second major attempt at a devolved settlement, following the election of an SNP (minority) government in 2007 and the rise of an independence agenda. The prospect of independence has prompted Scotland’s other main parties (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat – all of which are part of British parties) and the UK Government to consider further devolution; to try to produce a devolved solution that will settle the matter once and for all.

The Calman Commission recommended further devolution in 2009. It prompted the Scotland Act 2012, to introduce further tax devolution (part of income, land and landfill taxes), the ability of the Scottish Government to borrow to invest in capital projects, and new powers in areas such as Scottish Parliament elections, air weapons, driving and drug treatment. The Scotland Act 2012 was designed to be implemented after the referendum, giving opposition parties the opportunity to guarantee further devolution after a No vote.

Scotland Act 2012

Yet, this promise of further devolution proved to be insufficient and, during the referendum period, each party produced separate plans to extend devolution further. The parties then came together, in the lead up to the referendum to make what is now called ‘The Vow’ of ‘extensive new powers’ (and a retained Barnett formula) for a devolved Scotland. The Smith Commission was set up to take this agenda forward. It reported on the 27th November 2014, and its recommendations include to:

  • make the Scottish Parliament ‘permanent’.
  • devolve some fiscal powers, including the power to: set income tax rates and bands (higher earnings are taxed at a higher rate) but not the ‘personal allowance’ (the amount to be earned before income tax applies); set air passenger duty; and to receive a share of sales tax (VAT).
  • increase the Scottish Government’s borrowing powers.
  • devolve some aspects of social security, including those which relate to disability, personal care, housing and ‘council tax’ benefits (council tax is a property tax charged by local authorities to home owners/ renters and based on the value of homes).
  • devolve policies designed to encourage a return to employment.
  • devolve the ability to license onshore oil and gas extraction (which includes hydraulic fracturing, ‘fracking’, for shale gas).
  • control the contract to run the Scottish rail network.
  • encourage greater intergovernmental relations and a more formal Scottish Government role in aspects of UK policymaking.

In response, the UK Government has produced a new draft Scotland Bill.

To a large extent, the proposals reflect the plans of the three main British parties, rather than the SNP (which requested ‘devo max’), although they go further than those parties would have proposed in the absence of the referendum agenda. Again, they are designed to represent a devolved ‘settlement’, reinforced by the knowledge that 55% voted against Scottish independence in 2014 (the turnout was 84.6%).

Yet, this sense of a ‘settled will’ is not yet apparent. Indeed, it seems just as likely that the proposals will merely postpone a second referendum (although it is difficult to predict how long it will take the SNP to think it will win).

What will happen until then?

In the meantime, we can discuss how further devolution might affect the discussions we have had so far. For example, some things don’t seem destined to change much, such as the lack of ‘new politics’ or participatory democracy, the pervasiveness of networks, the development of the ‘Scottish approach’, or the importance of central-local relations. Others might see some significant developments:

  • The Scottish Parliament. If you think it is peripheral to the policy process now, think what will happen when the Scottish Government gets new responsibilities but the Parliament has the same paltry resources for scrutiny (see also McEwen, Petersohn and Swan).
  • MLG and IGR. Nicola McEwen and Bettina Petersohn know more about this than me, and they go into (by drawing on relevant international comparisons) the kinds of issues that the UK and Scottish Governments will face when they develop a shared powers model. The biggest issue is that that there will be far more overlaps in policy responsibilities than before. Under the original settlement, their respective responsibilities were fairly clear. Now, they are expected to cooperate on issues such as taxation, social security, and the energy mix. There is also a weird-looking requirement for the actions of one government to have ‘no detriment’ on another, the effects of which we do not yet know.
  • The Barnett formula. David Bell knows more about this than me, and he thinks that the new arrangements will place a great strain on the formula, partly because the new taxation arrangements give the Scottish Government more power to set its own budget (at least notionally) than rely on a block grant from the Treasury.
  • It’s more difficult to work out the effect of its new responsibilities on tax and social security, but I predict that little will change (albeit in the knowledge that I am not known for my good predictions). Kirstein Rummery knows more about this subject than me. See her commentary on the Scottish Government’s budget and the longer term potential for major change.

2 Comments

Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish independence, Scottish politics

12 things to know about studying public policy

Here is a blog post on 12 things to know about studying public policy. Please see the end of the post if you would like to listen to or watch my lecture on this topic.

  1. There is more to politics than parties and elections.

Think of policy theory as an antidote to our fixation on elections, as a focus on what happens in between. We often point out that elections can produce a change in the governing party without prompting major changes in policy and policymaking, partly because most policy is processed at a level of government that receives very little attention from elected policymakers. Elections matter but, in policy studies, they do not represent the centre of the universe.

2. Public policy is difficult to define.

Imagine a simple definition: ‘the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes’. Then consider these questions. Does policy include what policymakers say they will do (e.g. in manifestos) as well as what they actually do? Does it include the policy outcome if it does not match the original aim? What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Does public policy include what policymakers decide to not do? Is it still ‘public policy’ when neither the public nor elected policymakers have the ability to pay attention to what goes on in their name?

3. Policy change is difficult to see and measure.

Usually we know that something has changed because the government has passed legislation, but policy is so much more: spending, economic penalties or incentives (taxes and subsidies), social security payments and sanctions, formal and informal regulations, public education, organisations and staffing, and so on. So, we need to sum up this mix of policies, asking: is there an overall and coherent aim, or a jumble of policy instruments? Can we agree on the motives of policymakers when making these policies? Does policy impact seem different when viewed from the ‘top’ or the ‘bottom’? Does our conclusion change when we change statistical measures?

4. There is no objective way to identify policy success.

We know that policy evaluation is political because left/right wing political parties and commentators argue as much about a government’s success as its choices. Yet, it cannot be solved by scientists identifying objective or technical measures of success, because there is political choice in the measures we use and much debate about the best measures. Measurement also involves (frequently) a highly imperfect proxy, such as by using waiting times to measure the effectiveness of a health service. We should also note the importance of perspective: should we measure success in terms of the aims of elected policymakers, the organisations carrying out policy, or the people who are most affected? What if many policymakers were involved, or their aims were not clear? What if their aim was to remain popular, or have an easy time in the legislature, not to improve people’s lives? What if it improved the lives of some, but hurt others?

5. There is no ‘policy cycle’ with well-ordered stages.

Imagine this simple advice to policymakers: identify your aims, identify policies to achieve those aims, select a policy measure, ensure that the selection is ‘legitimised’ by the population or its legislature, identify the necessary resources, implement, and then evaluate the policy. If only life were so simple. Instead, think of policymaking as a collection of thousands of policy cycles, which interact with each other to produce much less predictable outcomes. Then note that it is often impossible in practice to know when one stage begins and another ends. Finally, imagine that the order of stages is completely messed up, such as when we have a solution long before a problem arises.

6. Policymakers are ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’.

A classic reference point is the ‘ideal-type’ of comprehensive (or synoptic) rationality which helps elected policymakers translate their values into policy in a straightforward manner. They have a clear, coherent and rank-ordered set of policy preferences which neutral organizations carry out on their behalf. We can separate policymaker values from organizational facts. There are clear-cut and ordered stages to the process and analysis of the policymaking context is comprehensive. This allows policymakers to maximize the benefits of policy to society in much the same way that an individual maximizes her own utility. In the real world, we identify ‘bounded rationality’, challenge all of the assumptions of comprehensive rationality, and wonder what happens next. The classic debate focused on the links between bounded rationality and incrementalism. Our current focus is on ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ responses to the need to make decisions quickly without comprehensive information: limiting their options, and restricting information searches to sources they trust, to make their task manageable; but also making quick decisions by relying on instinct, gut, emotion, beliefs, ideology, and habits.

7. We talk of actors, but not on stage.

Most policy theories use the word ‘actor’ simply to describe the ability of people and organisations to deliberate and act to make choices. Many talk about the large number of actors involved in policymaking, at each level and across many levels of policymaking. Some discuss a shift, in many countries since the early post-war period, from centralized and exclusive policymaking, towards a fragmented multi-level system involving a much larger number of actors

8. We talk of institutions, but not buildings.

In political science, ‘institution’ refers to the rules, ‘norms’, and other practices that influence policymaking behaviour.  Some rules are visible or widely understood, such as constitutions. Others are less visible, such as the ‘rules of the game’ in politics, or organisational ‘cultures’. So, for example, ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracies could have very different formal rules but operate in very similar ways in practice. These rules develop in different ways in many parts of government, prompting us to consider what happens when many different actors develop different expectations of politics and policymaking.  For example, it might help explain a gap between policies made in one organisation and implemented by another. It might cause government policy to be contradictory, when many different organisations produce their own policies without coordinating with others. Or, governments may contribute to a convoluted statute book by adding to laws and regulations without thinking how they all fit together.

9. We have 100 ways to describe policy networks.

Put simply, ‘policy network’ describes the relationships between policymakers, in formal positions of power, and the actors who seek to influence them. It can also describe a notional venue – a ‘subsystem’ – in which this interaction takes place. Although the network concept is crucial to most policy theories, it can be described using very different concepts,and with reference to different political systems. For example, in the UK, we might describe networks as a consequence of bounded rationality: elected policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants who, in turn, rely on specialist organisations for information and advice. Those organisations trade information for access to government. This process often becomes routine: civil servants begin to trust and rely on certain organisations and they form meaningful relationships. If so, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist ‘policy communities’ that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement. Network theories tend to consider the key implications, including a tendency for governments to contain ‘silos’ and struggle to ‘join up’ government when policy is made in so many different places

10. We struggle to separate power from ideas.

Policy theory is about the relationship between power and ideas (or shared beliefs). These terms are difficult to disentangle, even analytically, because people often exercise power by influencing the beliefs of others. Classic power debates inform current discussions of ‘agenda setting’ and ‘framing’. Debates began with the idea that we could identify the powerful by examining ‘key political choices’: the powerful would win and benefit from the outcomes at the expense of other actors. The debate developed into discussions of major barriers to the ‘key choices’ stage: actors may exercise power to persuade/ reinforce the popular belief that the government should not get involved, or to keep an issue off a government agenda by drawing attention to other issues. This ability to persuade depends on the resources of actors, but also the beliefs of the actors they seek to influence.

11. We talk a lot about ‘context’ and events, and sometimes about ‘complexity’ and ‘emergence’.

Context’ describes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a country’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and social attitudes. This wider context is in addition to the ‘institutional’ context, when governments inherit the laws and organisations of their predecessors. Important ‘game changing’ events can be routine, such as when elections produce new governments with new ideas, or unanticipated, such as when crises or major technological changes prompt policymakers to reconsider existing policies. In each case, we should consider the extent to which policymaking is in the control of policymakers. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – think for example of a ‘demographic timebomb’ – but governments show that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time or, at least, decide how and why they are important. This question of policymaker control is also explored in discussions of ‘complexity theory’, which highlights the unpredictability of policymaking, limited central government control, and a tendency for policy outcomes to ‘emerge’ from activity at local levels.

12. It can inform real world policymaking, but you might not like the advice.

For example, policymakers often recognise that they make decisions within an unpredictable and messy, not ‘linear’, process. Many might even accept the implications of complexity theory, which suggests that they should seek new ways to act when they recognise their limitations: use trial and error; keep changing policies to suit new conditions; devolve and share power with the local actors able to respond to local areas; and so on. Yet, such pragmatic advice goes against the idea of Westminster-style democratic accountability, in which ministers remain accountable to Parliament and the public because you know who is in charge and, therefore, who to blame. Or, for example, we might use policy theory to inform current discussions of evidence-based policymaking, saying to scientists that they will only be influential if they go beyond the evidence to make manipulative emotional appeals.

For more information, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

To listen to the lecture (about 50 minutes plus Q&A), you can download here or stream:

You can also download the video here or stream:

To be honest, there is little gain to watching the lecture, unless you want to laugh at my posture & shuffle and wonder if I have been handcuffed.

 

11 Comments

Filed under 1000 words, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy

Women don’t understand facts (and fracking)

A recent poll suggests that women are far less likely to support commercial fracking than men. For a while, the same divide was detected in relation to Scottish independence. The common factor is that you can learn a lot from people’s attitudes to gender by how they try to explain these divides.

A common starting point is that women are less likely to take risks (quick and cheap Google examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Then lots of people make fools of themselves by adding to the explanation: women prefer security/ a ‘safety blanket’ because their role is to nurture, earth mothers are closer to the environment, men are buccaneers, men are more ‘rational’ when they consider risk, and so on.

Or, perhaps they are misreported. I don’t know.

For example, it is now being reported in the Times that Professor Averil MacDonald (‘the new champion of the shale gas industry’) says: ‘Vast numbers of women are opposed to fracking because they “don’t understand” and follow their gut instinct rather than the facts’ (the same interpretation can be found in the Guardian, Daily Mail, and Independent).

The message that I think MacDonald was presenting is this: people are less likely to support fracking if they didn’t study particular sciences at school; and, women are less likely to have studied those sciences at school. Maybe, at its core, is a good point about challenging the barriers to women studying, and choosing a career in, certain science subjects (i.e. these findings might give us a window of opportunity to discuss such barriers).

Turned into a newspaper headline it becomes this: “Fracking? Women ‘don’t understand the science’”.

Beyond this point, there are four other things worthy of discussion:

  1. You can’t separate your values from your empirical studies and scientific explanations

Some people like to present themselves as objective truth-seeking scientists, but they are kidding themselves or trying to kid other people. Scientific study is infused with our values, from what is worthy of our study, to how to study it, and what counts as good research, evidence, and explanation. Normally, you just see the end without considering all the assumptions that people make at the beginning. Or, people engage in inductive science, then struggle with post-hoc explanation (‘umm, like, women are different, eh?’).

  1. You can’t separate politics from explanation

Part of the problem with gender-based conclusions is that people jump to explanations based on the too-broad category ‘women’ (or ‘men’) without considering the political implications of treating one gender as one group of people. Maybe it gets you somewhere initially, as a way of efficiently identifying correlations, but it gets you nowhere if you then try and come up with one overarching explanation for what is going on. It’s quite bad science and it’s very bad politics, contributing to unsubstantiated stereotypes. The overall correlation also distracts us from more detailed explanations based on gender and a wide range of other factors, which contributes to a further political problem: it reinforces the argument that somehow the difference between a positive or negative political choice boils down to the attitudes of women.

  1. People go beyond their expertise

It is common for people to develop an undeserved general reputation for expertise, built on specific expertise in one discipline or field. It’s always worth being particularly skeptical when people with a background in natural science pronounce on social behaviour, or indeed when political scientists try to explain psychology or how gravity works. Just as you wouldn’t ask me to give a lecture on the combustion engine, don’t rely primarily on STEM professors to explain the outcomes of surveys.

  1. All people combine ‘rational’ and gut-level shortcuts

If you read something like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you won’t find him saying that only women make gut, intuitive, or emotional decisions. We’re all at it. In fact, in my forthcoming Palgrave ‘Pivot’ book The Politics of Evidence-based Policymaking* I use that basic insight to explain policymaking: Policymakers cannot consider all evidence relevant to policy problems. They use two shortcuts: ‘rational’ ways to establish the best evidence, and ‘irrational’ decision-making, drawing on emotions and beliefs to act quickly.

*Yes, I wrote this post largely to advertise my next publication.

1 Comment

Filed under agenda setting, feminism, Fracking, public policy, Social change

Early thoughts on the SNP conference: 2 speeches postponing independence and social democracy

The SNP describes itself as ‘a social democratic political party committed to Scottish independence’. However, two key speeches at the SNP’s annual conference in 2015 suggest that both aims will have to be postponed. Instead, the political dynamic in Scotland and the UK will continue to contribute to a strange and often inconsistent social and economic strategy that would not be chosen in a fully reserved UK or fully independent Scotland.

The first speech, by Nicola Sturgeon, confirmed that, although she believes that support for Scottish independence may have risen since the referendum, she does not foresee a second referendum in the near future (unless the UK population votes to leave the EU on the back of votes in England and opposition in Scotland). Instead, Scotland will enjoy further devolution in some areas, such as a greater ability to set income tax rates and vary some social security benefits, and continue to deliver most public services, without having complete control in either.

Consequently, it is not possible for the Scottish Government to take a ‘social democratic’ approach, often linked to the idea of ‘Nordic’ social democracy, to combine (a) spending decisions based on an appeal to universal service provision, and (b) redistribution through taxation. Instead, there is great potential for inconsistent UK/ Scottish strategies: the Scottish Government to oversee a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (on universal free services with no means testing) while the UK Government maintains a tax and benefits policy that many people will perceive to be insufficiently redistributive.

These issues arise infrequently on the Scottish political agenda, partly because Scottish independence has drawn attention away from serious debates on budget priorities. Further, a continued sense of constitutional uncertainty – built on the SNP leadership’s short term acceptance of devolution, but long term hope for independence – may help minimise economic debate and maintain an economic system that few would design.

The second speech, to be delivered by John Swinney, Scotland’s equivalent of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, confirms that the SNP likes to combine ‘social democratic’ ideas on spending, but strategies on taxation that would generally not look out of place in George Osborne’s Red Box. Swinney will propose to give local authorities the power to reduce rates of business tax (well in advance of Osbourne granting the same powers in England). This initiative follows a series of speeches by Alex Salmond, while First Minister, which suggested that the SNP would also like to reduce corporation taxes and airport charges, to increase economic competitiveness and encourage inward investment. It also reinforces the SNP Government’s decision to (effectively) ‘freeze’ the rates of council tax, which remain the more regressive option than its previous plans to introduce a local income tax, and likely aversion to raising income tax (the most toxic taxation instrument) in any meaningful way (although compare my account with John Swinney’s).

In that context, the economic lines between a Conservative UK government and SNP Scottish Government are far less clear than we might deduce from the vociferous debates that took place during the referendum debate in 2014 and were repeated in the run up to the UK general election. Indeed, the biggest dividing lines were in areas that the SNP knew it could not control – when it argued for an alternative to ‘austerity’ and a slower rate of budget cuts to allow for economy boosting investment – which make the differences seem more rhetorical than substantive.

In cases where the SNP has demanded more powers successfully, its actions tend to relate to ‘hot button’ issues, such as its intention to mitigate the effects of the ‘bedroom tax’. Rather than propose a major reform of tax and benefit provision to get to the ‘root causes’ of socio-economic inequalities via redistribution, it talks instead about the use of public service delivery to mitigate their effects. This strategy relies largely on public service reforms, localism, and the idea of ‘prevention’ policies – to intervene as early as possible in people’s lives to improve their life chances, through interventions such as parenting programmes – which are also promoted by the UK Government. Further, these strategies generally come in second place behind the higher profile spending decisions which often exacerbate inequalities. For example, the SNP Government maintains free tuition fees in Universities which, in the absence of redistributive fiscal policy, and the continued presence of an attainment gap, doubly reinforces major inequalities in education.

These decisions sometimes receive critical attention, but from opposition parties which remain remarkably unpopular in Scotland, and a media that many supporters of the SNP or independence view with incredible mistrust. As long as independence remains the main reported story of SNP conferences, and the SNP remains unusually popular, few will pay meaningful attention to these socio-economic policy issues.

7 Comments

Filed under Scottish politics

Intergovernmental relations and shared policymaking #POLU9SP

In the previous lecture we discussed multi-level governance and a tendency for policy responsibilities to overlap, even when they look separate on paper. In this lecture, we discuss how governments deal with the overlaps. The ‘take home’ message is that UK-Scottish Government relations have been generally informal and remarkably smooth, largely because they resolve potential disputes behind closed doors and have found a way to turn potentially controversial funding and legislative issues into dull routines.

To make sense of intergovernmental relations (IGR) in the UK, it helps to compare them with IGR in other countries. This comparative literature prompts us to ask the following questions:

Is the UK a unitary or union state?

Devolved territories have subordinate status, but the terms of the union protect (to some extent) some Scottish institutions (which ones?).

Can it be meaningfully compared with federal or quasi-federal states?

We can identify: the distribution of some legal, executive and fiscal powers to allow devolved territories a level of autonomy; ‘umpires’ to rule in disputes between levels of government (examples?); and territorial representation at the national level (examples?). However, UK devolution is asymmetric (in what three ways?) and it lacks a supreme constitution to protect subnational bodies.

What is the role of key organisations/ institutions?

Until 2007, UK and Scottish Labour party links were important (an issue that we can revisit when discussing ‘policy convergence’). Also note that the coordinating role of the executives is far more important in the UK than the role of parliaments or the courts.

p195

How are issues generally resolved, and how often do governments resort to formal dispute resolution?

The short answers are ‘quietly’ and ‘not’.

The UK-Scottish Government has been remarkably smooth, when measured with reference to the number of high profile disputes:

  • Guiding documents, such as the Memorandum of Understanding between the governments, and individual concordats between departments, reinforce a sense of IGR resolution through convention/ cultural practices.
  • Formal mechanisms for dispute resolution, such as Joint Ministerial Committees, are used rarely and Scottish bills are not opposed by the UK Government (compare with the process in Wales).
  • Instead, both governments have preferred to use ‘bilateral’ and less formal links.
  • When policy overlaps involve legislation, the governments relied heavily on ‘Sewel motions’ or ‘legislative consent motions’ (LCMs), passed by the Scottish Parliament to allow Westminster to legislate on its behalf. Scottish ministers would identify expediency, heavily entangled responsibilities, the need to avoid loopholes, and the need to set up UK-wide public bodies, as reasons to pass LCMs. Or, the legislation would devolve more responsibilities to Scottish ministers.

What happens when each government is headed by a different party?

From 1999-2007, very few issues arose in public between the UK Labour government and Labour-led Scottish Government. A small number of exceptions, such as on free personal care, were perhaps linked to policy divergences promoted by the Liberal Democrats.

There were differences when each government has headed by a different party, such as when the SNP headed the Scottish Government from 2007, but not as many as you might associate with this image or my description of early expectations (p234):

boom and bust up Sun

p234 BJPIR

Why were UK-Scottish Governmental relations so smooth from 1999-2007?

One reason is that the arrangements suited both governments: Labour Party links allowed them to keep issues in-house; civil servants were able to conduct negotiations out of public spotlight; and, the ‘Barnett formula’ (next lecture) and Sewel convention allowed them to deal with financial and legal issues routinely.

Another explanation is that the UK government is more powerful: the Scottish Executive struggled to get the UK to engage, and was reluctant to challenge UK authority. Although a focus on power generally dramatizes these innocuous IGR arrangements, their relationship on EU matters is instructive: the UK government saw EU affairs as reserved UK responsibilities, ‘rebuffed’ former First Minister Henry McLeish when he sought a stronger Scottish Government role (p134), and often ignored Scottish Government concerns (p100).

Why was there no ‘boom and bust up’ from 2007?

A lot of the same explanations still applied under SNP government. My article suggests that we can draw on ‘British policy style’ discussions to explain a ‘logic of negotiation’: imposition is costly for the UK and the SNP often adopts an ‘insider strategy’ (generally making reasonable demands, negotiating quietly, and accepting the imbalance of power). The SNP also supported the use of ‘Barnett’ implicitly (it argues for reform in public) and the Sewel convention explicitly:

SG SEWEL May 2008 (still on website)

Further, during minority SNP government, the more contentious issues between opposing parties – including the Scottish Government’s budget settlement, and the implications of a local income tax – played out in the Scottish Parliament, while the biggest bone of contention – a referendum on Scottish independence – had been delayed by opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament, not the UK Government.

Did Conservative-led UK Government make a difference?

A Tory government might be handy for the SNP’s electoral ambitions, and its favoured story on the need for independence, but Conservative ministers did not make it easy to portray them as aloof or top-down minded. Instead, David Cameron pursued a ‘respect’ agenda and gave his support to more regular formal meetings between UK and Scottish ministers via the JMC process. The SNP government has also been generally non-confrontational. Indeed, can you give me any examples of public disputes between the two governments?

Independence is the exception?

We might point to Scottish independence as the biggest and longest-running bone of contention between the SNP and Conservative or Labour governments. However, if you look at the way the referendum was designed and run, it has the hallmarks of negotiation and respect that we can identify in most other areas, including: Conservative government respect for the SNP’s mandate to hold a referendum, UK support to ensure the legality of the referendum and allow the Scottish Government to coordinate much of the process, and UK and Scottish Government negotiations on the wording and timing of the question.

Indeed, the UK/ Scottish process may become an international standard, or model for similar countries to follow.

In the next lecture, we will delve further into the Barnett formula, as one of the things that keeps IGR smooth, and then consider the likely effect of further constitutional change on these practices.

 

6 Comments

Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

Localism, partnerships and new forms of governance beyond the centre #POLU9SP

Local government in Scotland is important. It employs 45% of the Scottish public sector workforce, (245,700 of the total 545,600), spends a similar proportion of the Scottish budget, is the main delivery body for key devolved policy areas (including education, social work, housing, leisure, planning, roads, and social inclusion/ justice), and is an often-influential partner in other areas, such as police, fire, mental health, and public health services.

Consequently, we often talk of an interdependent relationship between central and local government: local authorities enhance the legitimacy of Scottish Government policies by providing important policy advice, tailoring delivery to local areas, and supplying an additional electoral mandate; and, the Scottish Government largely determines the levels of legal, financial and political autonomy that they enjoy.

Sometimes, we also highlight a tense relationship regarding the levels of autonomy afforded to local authorities, measured in terms of the extent to which they are subject to (a) detailed legislation and regulation, and (b) limits to their ability to raise revenue and decide how their budget is spent.

Two images of central-local government relations in Scotland

The first, summed up in the phrase ‘Scottish approach’, discussed in the previous lecture, suggests that the Scottish Government devolves a meaningful level of authority to local authorities, which increasingly make policy in cooperation with their public sector partners and non-governmental stakeholders.

The second suggests that Scottish local authorities are subject to Scottish Government control, through financial and legal instruments.

You can see these images play out below, in a discussion and qualification of the devolution effect on central-local relations.

A key part of the first story is that things are better than they once were, either after 1999 or after 2007. To reinforce this image, we can refer to:

Post-1999 developments

Devolved central-local relations are often compared to the period of UK Conservative government (1979-97), in which central-local tensions arose following many central government reforms, including a broad challenge to the primacy attached to public sector delivery, and specific measures, including: the introduction of the ‘poll tax’ to limit local authority spending, ‘compulsory competitive tendering’ (the delivery of public services), the enforced sale of/ ‘right to buy’ (council housing), public/ private partnerships (e.g. to build schools); and, the reform of local government boundaries and functions (e.g. the 1996 reform which introduced 32 unitary Scottish local authorities).

In that context, there is some evidence of:

  • a better central-local relationship in Scotland (than in the UK) before devolution, based on closer personal networks and a sense that some ‘wet’ Scottish Office ministers often tried to reduce the impact of reforms;
  • a sense of common purpose, during the campaign for Scottish devolution between the leaders of local authorities and the parties which were to form the first Scottish Government (‘Scottish Executive’)

Both factors may have contributed to a ‘honeymoon period’ in which devolution enhanced or replaced previous relationships, the Scottish Government became more open and consultative, local authorities and COSLA became more involved in policy formulation, and this relationship helped produce reforms – such as the replacement of compulsory competitive tendering with ‘Best Value’, and the development of local government community planning powers – that suited local authorities.

However, many policies associated with the Thatcher government were maintained or extended under Labour (such as the ‘right to buy’ and PPP), the Scottish Government maintained control over most sources of local authority income and, although the Scottish Government used performance management in a less punitive way than the UK government, it still held local authorities to many short term targets (what about the introduction of STV in local elections – is it relevant to this discussion?). Opinions on the central-local relationship were mixed, and the idea of a partnership was often ‘aspirational’.

box 7.3 PPP

Post-2007 developments

Some accounts use the latter argument to suggest that most of the big changes only happened when the SNP entered government in May 2007, highlighting:

  • The Scottish Government’s Concordat with COSLA in 2007, which suggests that the former will not seek to micromanage local authorities or use regulations, performance management, and funding to produce compliance with short term, specific proxy targets.
  • A proposed reduction in 2007 – from 22% to 10% – of ‘ring-fenced’/’hypothecated’ funding (the proportion of local authority budgets which they have to spend in accordance with specific Scottish Government requirements).
  • Alex Salmond signalling a ‘culture change in the relationship between central and local government in Scotland. The days of top-down diktats are over’ (p130).
  • Former COSLA President Pat Watters talking in 2007 about local government now having greater responsibility and ‘the freedom and flexibility to respond effectively to local priorities’ (p130).
  • The development of the ‘Scottish approach’

box 7.4

However, many of the same caveats apply: the Scottish Government still provides about 80% of local government budgets, it still has a major influence on the rate of local authority council tax (to ensure its ‘freeze’ since 2007), and its proposed local income tax would have increased its budgetary control.

Further, have a look at how some people in local government describe the new relationship:

  • Current COSLA President David O’Neill in 2014, as chair of the Commission on Strengthening Local Democracy: ‘Over the decades, we’ve seen a culture in which more and more services and decisions been taken away from local communities and put into the hands of distant bureaucracies’
  • The Improvement Service’s Mark McAteer: ‘Scotland continues to operate a largely centralised, top-down and de-localised local government system’. McAteer’s paper identifies an unusually low number of local authorities per head of population and high Scottish Government control over its budget, and suggests that low electoral turnout reflects low levels of local government power.

So, local government is important, and the Scottish Government tells an important story about its crucial role, as part of the ‘Scottish approach to policymaking’, while others tell a story of continued Scottish Government control and limited local government subsidiarity. We can discuss in the lecture which story seems most convincing.

Further reading: to combine our discussions of complexity theory and the limits to local government/ public sector discretion, see The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

The Scottish Government and the ‘Scottish approach’ to policymaking’ #POLU9SP

A ‘Scottish approach’ to policymaking can refer to two things. The first is an academic description of the ‘Scottish policy style’, in a lot of the academic literature, which describes the Scottish Government’s reputation for two practices:

  1. A consultation style which is relatively inclusive and consensual (see previous lecture).
  2. A ‘governance’ style which places unusually high levels of trust in public bodies such as local authorities.

The second is called the ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’ (SATP) by the Scottish Government. It largely describes its approach to ‘governance’, which developed from 1999 but appeared to change markedly in 2007 and 2013.

See Greer and Jarman for an interesting account of the period from 1999-2007, which I summarize here:

greer jarman summary

greer jarman biblio

My summary of the post-2007 developments draws on accounts by the former and current Permanent Secretary (the most senior civil servant) of the Scottish Government: John Elvidge’s Northern Exposure and Peter Housden’s ‘This is us’.

The ‘Scottish Approach to Policymaking’

An early version of the ‘Scottish approach’ developed before 2007. Elvidge (2011: 31-5) describes a ‘Scottish model of government’, linked to the potential to exploit its relatively small size, and central position in a dense network of public sector and third sector bodies, to pursue ‘holistic’ government, in which ministers – and their equivalents in the civil service – had briefs which spanned traditional departmental divides and came together regularly to coordinate national strategies.

Elvidge (2011: 31) describes ‘the concept of a government as a single organisation’ and “the idea of ‘joined up government’ taken to its logical conclusions”. He links this agenda to his belief that ‘traditional policy and operational solutions’ based on ‘the target driven approach which characterised the conduct of the UK Government’ would not produce the major changes in policy and policymaking required to address major problems such as health and educational inequalities and low economic growth. Instead, they required:

more integrated approaches, such as the approach to the early years of children’s lives … which looked across the full range of government functions [and] offered the scope for some significant and unexpected fresh policy perspectives (2011: 32).

Elvidge (2011: 32) suggests that this approach took off under the SNP-led Scottish Government, elected in May 2007, partly because his ideas on joined up government complemented the SNP’s:

manifesto commitments to: i) an outcome based approach to the framing of the objectives of government and to enabling the electorate to hold the Government to account for performance; ii) a reduced size of Cabinet, which was an expression of a commitment to an approach to Ministerial responsibilities that emphasised the collective pursuit of shared objectives over a focus on individual portfolios with disaggregated objectives.

By 2007, the ‘Scottish approach’ combined the pursuit of joined up government with the SNP’s ‘outcomes based approach to delivering the objectives of government’, a ‘single statement of purpose, elaborated into a supporting structure of a small number of broad objectives and a larger, but still limited, number of measurable national outcomes’ (2011: 34).

The Scottish Government introduced a government-wide policy framework, the National Performance Framework (NPF), based on a single ‘ten year vision’ and a shift towards measuring success in terms of often-long term outcomes. The NPF has a stated ‘core purpose – to create a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth’. It seeks to turn this broad purpose into specific policies and measures of success in two main ways.

First, it articulates in more depth its national approach via a ‘purpose framework’ – linked to targets gauging its economic growth, productivity, labour market participation, population, income inequality, regional inequality and (emissions based) sustainability – and five ‘strategic objectives’:

  1. Wealthier and Fairer – Enabling businesses and people to increase their wealth and more people to share fairly in that wealth.
  2. Healthier – Helping people to sustain and improve their health, especially in disadvantaged communities, ensuring better, local and faster access to health care.
  3. Safer and Stronger – Helping communities to flourish, becoming stronger, safer places to live, offering improved opportunities and a better quality of life.
  4. Smarter. Expanding opportunities to succeed from nurture through to lifelong learning ensuring higher and more widely shared achievements.
  5. Greener. Improving Scotland’s natural and built environment and the sustainable use and enjoyment of it.

These objectives are mapped onto sixteen ‘National Outcomes’ and fifty ‘National Indicators’.

Second, it works in partnership with the public sector to align organisational objectives with the NPF. In some cases, this involves public sector reform and/or some attempts at centralisation: it obliged non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs, or ‘quangos’) to align their objectives with the NPF, after reducing their number, and it created a single police force and single fire service.

In the case of local authorities, its approach was different. It required them to produce ‘Single Outcomes Agreements’ (SOAs), in partnership with their stakeholders (and public sector partners), but with local government discretion to determine the balance between a range of priorities as long as their outcomes were consistent with the NPF’s vision.

The Scottish Government reinforced this sense of discretion by signing a Concordat with COSLA which contained a package of Scottish Government aims, but also its agreement to halve the amount of ‘ring fenced’ budgets (from 22% to 11%) and reject a tendency to ‘micromanage’ local government – albeit within the context of a system in which the Scottish Government controls almost all of local authorities’ total budgets (we can discuss this in the next lecture).

Since 2013, the Scottish Government has sought to reinforce the ‘Scottish approach’ with reference to three broad principles:

  1. Improvement. The pursuit of ‘improvement’ in public services, to help it deliver on its holistic government agenda, in partnership with stakeholders. For example, it has overseen the development of the ‘Early Years Collaborative’, in which the Scottish Government identifies promising policy interventions and asks practitioners to experiment with their own projects in their local areas. This approach is designed partly to address the idea that local policymakers are more likely to adopt interventions if they are developed locally and/ or tailored to local circumstances.
  2. Assets. A focus on people’s ‘assets’ rather than their ‘deficits’. Housden (2014: 67-8) suggests that, ‘we look always to build on and strengthen the assets and resilience of individuals, families and communities. Community grant schemes and devolved budgets can build assets and stimulate local action and decision-making. Recovery programmes for those seeking to exit drug use look to draw on the resources and potential of those in recovery themselves to assist others on the journey’.
  3. Co-production. Housden (2014: 67) suggests that, ‘we put a real premium on the idea of co-production, with services designed and delivered with service users and organisations. This ranges from self-directed care for elderly people and those managing chronic conditions or disabilities, to the networks of support for children with learning difficulties with parents and voluntary organisations at their heart’.

Overall, the ‘Scottish approach’:

  • began as a broad idea about how to govern by consensus in a new era of devolved politics
  • 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.

According to Elvidge and Housden, this approach contrasts markedly with UK policymaking and, in particular, the UK Labour Government’s approach from 1997 (as described by Greer and Jarman, above).

In the lecture, I will try to describe these developments and principles, and we can discuss the extent to which they are specific enough (in other words, not too vague, and specific to Scottish policymaking) to describe a distinctively ‘Scottish approach’. For example, don’t other bodies care about coproduction?

 

7 Comments

Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

Pluralist democracy and the ‘Scottish policy style’: the role of ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups #POLU9SP

A key theme of the course is that we can explain policymaking, in most political systems, with reference to ‘universal’ concepts such as policy networks. These concepts help us identify: (a) the policy processes shared by most systems, before we examine (b) how to best understand those processes in specific systems. For example, we can link closely, but recognize key differences in, descriptions of subsystems in the US and networks in the UK.

In Scottish politics, that kind of comparison tends to be with UK policymaking: can we identify the same basic processes, or did devolution prompt a ‘Scottish policy style’ that differs significantly from the ‘British style’?

box 8.1 networks

While Box 8.1 highlights a ‘logic’ of policy communities that is common to Scottish and UK government, it does not suggest that their processes are identical. Rather, much of the literature recounts an important story, told by participants and policymakers in Scotland, that their ‘territorial policy communities’ have distinctive features. Some participants describe ‘cultural’ differences in consultation, which can relate to our discussions of ‘new politics’ and ‘consensus democracy’, or more practical factors such as Scotland’s size, the scale of the Scottish Government’s responsibilities, and its resources to make and fund policy. This takes place in a multi-level system in which it is often difficult – particularly for pressure participants*– to identify a Scottish process of policymaking, separate from developments at EU, UK, and local levels.

Devolution and new policy networks

Keating et al (2009: 54) use the term ‘territorial policy communities’ to describe the development of new networks in Scotland, prompted by the devolution of new responsibilities to the Scottish Government and significant levels of UK interest group devolution (or the proliferation of new Scottish groups). These new arrangements were characterised initially by:

  • a period of adjustment, in which ministers and civil servants adapted to their new policymaking role and groups sought new opportunities or felt obliged to lobby Scottish political institutions
  • ‘cognitive change’, in which policy problems became defined increasingly from a territorial perspective
  • a new group-government dynamic, in which groups formed new relationships with their allies (and competitors).

Perhaps more importantly, groups increasingly follow a devolved policy agenda. Gone are the days of the old (pre-1999) Scottish Office, responsible primarily for policy implementation, and the tendency of groups to form coalitions to oppose or modify UK Conservative government policies at the margins. Now, groups respond to Scottish Government demands for new policy ideas, and often compete as well as cooperate with each other to draw the attention of that captive audience.   The evidence suggests that some groups addressed that task more quickly than others: some groups improved on links that were already partly established (in which areas?), some reinforced the links that they developed with the Labour government from 1997 (which ones?), some maintained dual UK and Scottish links, to reflect limited devolution in their areas (which groups?), and others took time to get over their opposition to devolution and find a clear role (which ones?). Devolution perhaps gave all groups more opportunities to engage, but this did not diminish a tendency to consult with ‘the usual suspects’.

box 8.4

Distinctive elements of the ‘Scottish policy style’: a new policymaking culture?

box 8.3

Box 8.3 describes interest group perceptions of policymaking in the early years of devolution. They describe their shift of attention to Scottish institutions, and a sense that they generally enjoyed regular and meaningful access to policymakers in the Scottish Government and politicians in the Scottish Parliament (although, do their links to MSPs matter much if the Scottish Parliament is often peripheral to policymaking?). Many groups also describe this process as better than the UK equivalent. This is the sort of statement that we should be wary of: how might we explain it, beyond simply saying that they are right? Some possibilities include:

  • Many groups, which supported devolution, ‘would say that, wouldn’t they?’
  • Many describe UK processes of which they have limited experience.
  • Many describe their experiences of consultation, not influence.
  • Some describe their greater ability to compete with other groups in Scotland, compared to their experiences in the UK.
  • Some conflate their experiences with their attitudes to a Conservative UK government, which they opposed, and Labour-led Scottish Government, which they supported.
  • Not all groups reported positive experiences.

Still, we should not ignore completely the general feeling that something has changed, for the better.

Explanations for the Scottish policy style: new politics or pragmatism?

The most immediate and obvious explanation for these developments is ‘new politics’: devolution went hand in hand with the expectation that politicians and policymakers would open their doors, and their minds to new ideas. Politics would be more participative and deliberative, and policymaking would be more open and based on more regular and meaningful consultation.

However, consider three practical reasons for Scottish Government policymaking to differ from its UK counterpart:

  1. Scotland’s size, and the scale of Scottish Government responsibilities, allows closer personal relationships to develop between key actors. You can get all the key players in one room.
  2. The Scottish Government has limited resources, prompting civil servants to rely more – for information, advice, and support – on experts outside of government and the actors who will become responsible for policy implementation.
  3. Devolution went hand in hand with a significant increase in Scottish public expenditure.   It is easier to generate goodwill or consensus on policy innovation and greater investment than on how to cut public services.

Further, we can discuss another possibility next week, in relation to the ‘Scottish Approach’: if the Scottish Government was relatively keen to delegate policymaking responsibility to local public bodies, maybe it moved the trickier decisions to other policymaking venues. Maybe everyone gets together at the national level to support a vague strategy, only to struggle to influence or secure agreement on its delivery.

How do groups try to influence Scottish policymaking in a multi-level system?

In weeks 6-7, we can discuss the extent to which the idea of a ‘Scottish policy style’ makes sense when so many policies affecting Scotland take place at other levels of government. This complication provides a major dilemma for interest groups seeking influence but recognizing the need to maintain multiple channels of access. How do they do it?

  • Some groups only have the resources to lobby the Scottish Government, and rely on their networks with other groups to lobby UK and EU bodies. Others are regional branches of UK organizations.
  • Much depends on the policy issue or area. For example, major banks, businesses, and unions maintain Scottish links but focus their attention largely on issues – such as macroeconomic policy, export regulations, and employment laws – reserved to the UK Government and/ or influenced by EU bodies. Groups seeking influence over environmental or agricultural policy recognise that they are heavily ‘Europeanised’. This leaves key examples of devolved areas, such as education, health, local government, and housing, in which groups are most likely to direct their attention primarily to the Scottish Government.

In some cases, such as tobacco and alcohol control, policy consists of a series of measures produced by Scottish, UK, and EU bodies:

box 8.5 cigs alcohol

Finally, next week we can consider the effect of the ‘Scottish Approach’ on interest groups. What will they do if the face the need to shift their attention from 1 Scottish Government to 32 local authorities and their partners?

*Note: ‘Pressure participants’ is a term used by Jordan et al (2004) partly to show us that terms such as ‘pressure groups’ or ‘interest groups’ can be misleading because: (a) they conjure up a particular image of a pressure group which may not be accurate (we may think of unions or membership groups like Greenpeace); and (b) the organisations most likely to lobby governments are businesses, public sector organisations such as universities and other types of government.

5 Comments

Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

Devolution and ‘new politics’ in Scotland: the implications for policymaking #POLU9SP

The phrases ‘new Scottish politics’ or ‘new politics’ should be understood with reference to ‘old Westminster’. They represented important reference points for the ‘architects of devolution’, or the reformers keen to present devolution as a way to transfer policymaking responsibilities and reform political practices.

These aims can be associated with two documents specific to Scotland. The first is the Scottish Constitutional Convention’s (1995) Scotland’s Parliament: Scotland’s Right, which made a general case for political reform:

the coming of a Scottish Parliament will usher in a way of politics that is radically different from the rituals of Westminster: more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational.

The second is the Consultative Steering Group’s (1998) Shaping Scotland’s Parliament, which designed the operation of the Scottish Parliament with regard to four key principles: ‘power sharing’, ‘accountability’, ‘equal opportunities’, and ‘openness and participation’.

However, I’ll show you that the debate links to a broader distinction between ‘majoritarian’ and ‘consensus’ democracy.

This focus on new political behaviour was an important reference point for politicians and commentators in the early years of devolution. Now, you don’t hear it so much. Yet, it gives us a reference point, to highlight limited progress towards ‘new politics’ and identify continuities in politics and policymaking despite these expectations for novelty.

In particular, I’ll show you, in a series of lectures, that Scottish devolution came with a set of measures combining new and ‘old Westminster’ elements, and it soon became a political system that would not look out of place in the ‘Westminster family’. Then, we can note that the slow or limited progress of new politics did not feature prominently in the debate on Scottish independence. Although the previous debate on constitutional change gave advocates a major opportunity to pursue political reforms, the independence debate did not. Finally, we can discuss the overall implications for policymaking: did the new politics agenda change how people make policy in Scotland?

From a ‘majoritarian’ to a ‘consensus’ democracy?

When you read some of the literature describing new Scottish politics as an alternative to old Westminster politics, note how similar it sounds to Lijphart’s discussion of majoritarian and consensus democracies. Neil McGarvey and I summarise Lijphart’s argument in Scottish Politics (see also my co-authored comparisons with the UK, Sweden, and Switzerland):

(click on them to make them bigger)

BOX 1.4 lIJPHART

box 8.2 Lijphart

These discussions suggest that, for many commentators, ‘Westminster’ represents an archetypal centralised political system with an adversarial and top-down political culture. This is an image that we should examine critically throughout the course rather than take for granted.

For now, note the link between the formalised rules to govern behaviour, such as on the style of election or the division of powers between organisations, and the informal rules or ‘cultures’ that they are alleged to promote. In particular, note that we might hesitate to expect that a shift in the voting system, from plurality to proportional, will necessarily prompt a major shift in political culture.

Scottish politics: combining new and ‘old Westminster’ elements

‘New politics’ is a meaningless phrase without a clear definition or reference to specific objectives. In Scottish politics, you can take your pick from quite a long list of ‘old Westminster’s’ alleged failings (the next section is in pages 12 and 13 of the 1st ed of Scottish Politics):

Electoral system – the first-past-the-post system exaggerates majorities and excludes small parties. It tends to result in a majority which, combined with a strong party system, ensures that one party dominates proceedings.

Executive dominance – this ‘top-down’ system, in which power is concentrated within government, is not appropriate for a Scottish system with a tradition of civic democracy and the diffusion of power. In Westminster, the centre not only has the ability for force legislation through (and ignore wider demands), but also to dominate the resources devoted to policy. Parliament does not possess the resources to hold the executive to account.

Adversarial style – most discussions in Westminster take place in plenary sessions (the whole House sits together) with a charged partisan atmosphere. There is insufficient scope for detailed and specialist scrutiny in an atmosphere conducive to consensual working practices. This extends to committees – the partisan nature of politics undermines real scrutiny and there are limited resources to investigate or monitor departments. Given the distinction between select and standing committees, there may be a problem of coordination and a lack of potential for long-term consensual styles to emerge.

Too much power is vested in the House of Lords – an unelected and unrepresentative second chamber.

Although the government may consult with interest groups, this tends to be with the ‘usual suspects’. This reliance on the most powerful and well resourced groups (such as big business) reinforces the concentration of power in a ruling class.

Since power is concentrated at the centre there are limited links between state and civic society. Outside of the voting process, there are limited means for ‘the people’ to influence government.

Parliamentary overload – Parliament is too focused on scrutinizing government legislation. This leaves MPs with too little time to devote to their constituencies.

Parliament as a whole does not reflect the people that elect it in terms of microcosmic representation. There is a particular lack of women in Parliament as well as a tendency for MPs to be drawn from a ruling class’.

These deficiencies would therefore be addressed with a number of aims:

A proportional electoral system with a strong likelihood of coalition and bargaining between parties.

A consensual style of politics with a reduced role for party conflict.

Power-sharing rather than executive dominance.

A strong role for committees to initiate legislation, scrutinize the activity of the executive and conduct inquiries

Fostering closer links between state and civic society through parliament (e.g. with a focus on the right to petition parliament and the committee role in obliging the executive to consult widely)

Ensuring that MSPs have enough time for constituency work by restricting business in the Scottish Parliament to three days per week.

Fostering equality in the selection of candidates and making the Scottish Parliament equally attractive to men and women’.

Why did so few people discuss ‘new politics’ during the independence referendum?

In this lecture, I’m going to ask what you think of this list: how many of these aims do you think have been fulfilled? For example, is the Scottish Parliament more representative in terms of social background?

We can discuss briefly why you think that an evaluation of devolution, and a discussion of further political reform, did not seem to be a central feature of the independence referendum debate. Did most people assume that a Yes vote was – yet againa rejection of ‘Westminster politics’ without thinking about the extent to which it was different from Holyrood politics? Or, if it didn’t come up much, what were people talking about instead?

We can then go into some detail on participation, the role of the Scottish Parliament, and ‘pluralist democracy’ in subsequent lectures.

What can we conclude about the distinctiveness of Scottish policymaking?

Finally, we will come back to the main theme or guiding question of the course: what difference do these things make to policymaking in Scotland?

In particular, let’s see what you think of these two arguments:

  1. The argument specific to Scotland. Despite these hopes for greater ‘power sharing’ between the government, parliament, and ‘the people’, Scottish government largely operates in the same way as UK government. Most policy is processed by governments who consult with ‘pressure participants’ such as interest groups.
  2. The more general argument. There is a ‘universal’ logic to this kind of policymaking in majoritarian and consensus democracies. Although they look different, they engage in very similar policy processes.

3 Comments

Filed under POLU9SP, Scottish politics

What can be done about the UK’s ‘glass floor’?

New research on the ‘glass floor’ presents a striking way to understand socioeconomic inequality in the UK. It also highlights ever-present problems in translating such information into policy: we understand the size of the problem well, speculate on its cause badly, and produce vague calls for government action ineffectively. Our initial shock and enthusiasm for policy change translates into disenchantment with yet another ‘too difficult’ problem.

The UK Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has released new research on the life chances of the British population. It identifies a “’glass floor’ in British society” to reject the idea that people get on in life through hard work and merit. Instead, mediocre and lazy children in the right family will do better than bright and hardworking children in the wrong family.

This is horrible paraphrasing of the report, but you get the idea about how most people might notice the report in a hurry, have their beliefs about the lack of a British meritocracy reinforced, then complain that the government is doing enough about it. There wasn’t quite a public outcry (far from it), but you might be forgiven for thinking that the report gives the government plenty of reason to do something. The big question is: will it do anything new with the information?

I wouldn’t rule it out, but would exercise this note of caution: reports like this don’t speak for themselves or give governments a clear impetus to act. Instead, they form part of a larger pattern in this area (of socio-economic inequalities policy), in which we can speak with much more certainty about the size of the problem than (a) its cause, (b) how we should respond, and (c) who exactly should respond.

The size of the problem

The size of the problem is quantified well (it’s not a simple task to measure cognitive ability, class backgrounds and life chances like this) and easy to understand. For example, the commission’s press release states that:

‘Less able, better-off kids are 35% more likely to become high earners than bright poor kids … children from more advantaged social backgrounds who are assessed at age 5 as having low cognitive ability are nonetheless significantly more likely to become high earners than their high ability peers in lower income households. Children from high income backgrounds who show signs of low academic ability at age 5 are 35% more likely to be high earners as adults than children from poorer families who show early signs of high ability’.

The cause of the problem

This is when things get a bit trickier, because although the chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, describes ‘a social scandal that all too often demography is still destiny in Britain’, the commission is not entirely clear on who or what caused it. There is not one simple message about a single villain. Instead, there are at least two, and both stories are not crystal clear.

First, the author of the report, Dr Abigail McKnight, links the outcomes to the behaviour of certain parents:

“The fact that middle class families are successful in hoarding the best opportunities in the education system and in the labour market is a real barrier to the upward social mobility of less advantaged children.”

The keyword there is ‘hoarding’, which suggests inappropriately selfish behaviour. Yet, the chair of the commission, Alan Milburn, is keen not to blame parents: ‘No one should criticise parents for doing their best for their children. That’s what we all want’.

Instead, Milburn sort of blames the government for its current lack of proportionate action: ‘The government should make its core mission the levelling of the playing field so that every child in the country has an equal opportunity to go as far as their abilities can take them’.

The result is a mixed view about the cause of the problem – perhaps it’s the fault of some hoarding parents (the especially rich ones sending their kids to private schools, getting tutors and securing internships for their children) and not so much others (the ones using their own skills to secure a spot for their child in a good state school) – and maybe the solution is to give other parents some of these skills to ‘level the playing field’ a bit.

The realistic solution

This is when things get even trickier, because the report seems to call for the government to do far more than it will, while giving it the ability to say that it is already doing as much as it should.

In the ‘far more than it will’ column is the call to reduce socio-economic inequalities (through wealth and income redistribution?), remove differences in quality between schools, and remove class-based barriers to University admissions.

In the ‘sort of doing it already’ column is the call for the state to intervene early in people’s lives to, in effect, train disadvantaged parents in how to give their children things like ‘soft skills’ related to forming networks and spotting opportunities.

The ultimate complication

The final, and perhaps trickiest, obstacle is about working out who is in charge of taking the next step, to drive this new policy agenda forward. The final paragraph of the main report is instructive:

‘If politicians are serious about their expressed desire to increase social mobility in the UK they will need to address barriers that are preventing less advantaged children from reaching their full potential and remove barriers that block downward mobility’.

It doesn’t say who the politicians are – perhaps for good reason. In areas such as social and economic inequality, it is increasingly difficult to know who is responsible for policy progress. If it’s mainly about economic redistribution, you can call for action from central government – but, let’s be honest, this won’t get you very far. If it’s mainly about training and encouraging ‘soft skills’ like ‘resilience’, central government might produce a broad strategy document, but its localism agenda suggests that it expects local public bodies to take responsibility for social outcomes.

The overall message is that it takes us seconds to understand the problem and call for government action, but a lot longer to decide what we want them to do, and longer still to find the people likely to do it. By that time, our attention will probably have shifted elsewhere, until the next report comes out and we do it all over again. Maybe this time will be different.

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under agenda setting, public policy, Social change, UK politics and policy

Can you separate the facts from your beliefs when making policy?

A key argument in policy studies is that it is impossible to separate facts and values when making policy. We often treat our beliefs as facts, or describe certain facts as objective, but perhaps only to simplify our lives or support a political strategy (a ‘self-evident’ fact is very handy for an argument). People make empirical claims infused with their values and often fail to realise just how their values or assumptions underpin their claims.

This is not an easy argument to explain. One strategy is to use extreme examples to make the point. For example, Herbert Simon points to Hitler’s Mein Kampf as the ultimate example of value-based claims masquerading as facts. We can also draw on some embarrassing historic academic research which states that the evidence exists to show that men are more intelligent than women and some races are demonstrably superior to others. In such cases, we would point out, for example, that the design of the research helped produce such conclusions: our values underpin our assumptions about how to measure intelligence or other measures of superiority.

‘Wait a minute, though’ (you might say). “What about simple examples in which you can state facts with relative certainty – such as the statement ‘there are 449 words in this post’”. ‘Fair enough’, I’d say (you will have to speak with a philosopher to get a better debate about the meaning of your 449 words claim). But this statement doesn’t take you far in policy terms. Instead, you’d want to say that there are too many or too few words, before you decided what to do about it.

In that sense, we have the most practical explanation of the unclear fact/ value distinction: the use of facts in policy is to underpin evaluations based on values. For example, we might point to the routine uses of data to argue that a public service is in ‘crisis’ or that there is a public health related epidemic. We might argue that people only talk about ‘policy problems’ they think we have a duty to solve them.

Or, facts and values often seem the hardest to separate when we evaluate the success and failure of policy solutions, since the measures used for evaluation are as political as any other part of the policy process. The gathering and presentation of facts is inherently a political exercise, and our use of facts to encourage a policy response is inseparable from our beliefs about how they world should work.

To think further about the relevance of this discussion, see this post on policy evaluation, this page on the use of evidence in policymaking, this book by Douglas, and this short commentary on ‘honest brokers’ by Jasanoff.

8 Comments

Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), UK politics and policy

The language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability

westminster-times

A common argument in British politics is that the UK Government has exacerbated its own ‘governance problem’. A collection of post-war reforms, many of which were perhaps designed to reinforce central control, has produced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. This outcome presents major problems for the ‘Westminster’ narrative of central government and ministerial accountability to the public via Parliament. If ministers are not in control of their departments, how can we hold them to account in a meaningful way?

Yet, in many cases, it is misleading to link these outcomes to specific decisions or points in time, since many aspects of the ‘governance problem’ are universal: policymakers can only pay attention to a small fraction of the issues for which they are responsible; they do not have enough information to make decisions without major uncertainty; policy problems are too multi-faceted and ‘cross-cutting’ to allow policymaking without ambiguity; there is an inescapable logic to delegating decisions to ‘policy communities’ which may not talk to each other or account meaningfully to government; and, delivery bodies will always have discretion in the way they manage competing government demands.

In this context, policymaking systems can be described usefully as complex systems, in which behaviour is always difficult to predict, and outcomes often seem to emerge in the absence of central control. Further, the literature on complexity provides some advice about how governments should operate within complex systems. Unfortunately, much of this literature invites policymakers to give up on the idea that they can control policy processes and outcomes. While this may be a pragmatic response, it does not deal well with the need for elected policymakers to account for their actions in a very particular way. What seems sensible to one audience may be indefensible to another. In particular, the language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style accountability.

What we need is a response that sets out a governmental acknowledgement of the limits to its powers, combined with the sense that we can still hold elected policymakers to account in a meaningful way. Ideally, this response should be systematic enough to allow us to predict when ministers will take responsibility for their actions, redirect attention to other accountable public bodies, and/ or identify the limited way in which they can be held responsible for certain outcomes. Beyond this ideal, we may settle for a government strategy based on explicit trade-offs between pragmatism, in which governments acknowledge the effect of administrative devolution (or, in the case of local authorities, political devolution), and meaningful representation, in which they maintain some degree of responsibility for decisions made in their name.

The aim of this paper is to draw lessons from the Scottish experience, which demonstrates an attempt to mix strategic responsibility with an element of flexibility and delegation. While we should not exaggerate the coherence of government strategies, we can meaningfully describe a ‘Scottish policy style’, identified in empirical studies, and a ‘Scottish approach’ as a self-styled description of policymaking by the Scottish Government. Further, the Scottish context is comparable enough to the UK to offer lessons. Although much of the rhetoric of ‘new Scottish politics’ suggests that it is markedly different from ‘old Westminster’, it has inherited a Westminster-style focus on government accountability to the public via Parliament (and an assumption that ‘the government governs’). Although Scotland is smaller, and the Scottish Government is able to design a governance style based on greater personal contact with interest groups and public bodies, this only serves to reinforce the importance of ‘universal’ problems when the problems that arise in Scotland resemble those faced in the UK. Overall, Scottish policymaking demonstrates that many problems related to ‘governance’ cannot be solved. Rather, the Scottish experience prompts us to identify important trade-offs between the delegation of administrative functions and the maintenance of central accountability.

To explain these issues, the paper first summarises the main ways in which UK governments have allegedly exacerbated governance problems. Second, it separates this focus on specific outcomes from the universal constraints on central control common to all complex policymaking systems. Third, it contrasts the practical advice that arises from a focus on complexity theory with the political imperative, in Westminster systems, to present policy outcomes as the responsibility of ministers. Fourth, it identifies the balance struck between accountability and delegation by the Scottish Government since 2007, and the transferable lessons to other systems.

The paper is here: Cairney Governance Complexity Accountability Scotland 20.11.14

Some of the wider issues are discussed here:

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Westminster Model and Multi-level Governance

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Complex Systems

What is ‘Complex Government’ and what can we do about it?

Sharing professional and academic knowledge: The role of academic-practitioner workshops (on turning policy and complexity theories into something consistent with Westminster politics)

Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum (3000 words and a lecture)

The Scottish political system and policy process share the same ‘complex government’ features as any country (LSE 1200 words)

15 Comments

Filed under public policy, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Social investment, prevention and early intervention: a ‘window of opportunity’ for new ideas?

In policy studies, we talk about the rare occasions when some problems or policy solutions ‘take off’ suddenly or when an ‘idea’s time seems to come’. Indeed, one aim of Kingdon’s ‘multiple streams analysis’ is to show us that ideas come and go, only to be adopted if the time is right: when attention to a problem is high, a well-thought-out idea exists, and policymakers have the motive and opportunity to adopt it. Only then will policy change in a meaningful way.

If only life were so simple. Instead, look again at that word ‘idea’. It means at least two things: a specific policy solution to a clearly defined problem, or a potentially useful but vague way of thinking about a complex and perhaps intractable (or, at least, ‘wicked’) problem. If it is the latter, the ‘window of opportunity’ may not produce the sort of policy change we might expect. Instead, we may see a groundswell of attention to, and support for, a policy solution that is very difficult to ‘operationalise’. We may find that everyone agrees on the broad solution, but no-one agrees on the detail, and we spend years making very little progress.

This is the danger with several potential solutions which highlight the possibility of addressing: the fall-out from austerity and reduced budgets; the need to reduce demand for acute public services by addressing socio-economic problems at an early stage; the need to ‘join up’ a range of government responsibilities; and, a desire to move away from unhelpful short term targets towards more long term and meaningful measures of policy success. Several solutions are currently in good currency, including: the social investment model, the wellbeing agenda, prevention (or preventative spending) and early intervention.

In each case, there may be a window of opportunity to promote such solutions, but the following obstacles arise:

  • Each example represents an idea, or way of thinking about things like public expenditure, that could either underpin new ways of thinking within government, become faddish before being rejected, or provide a gloss to justify decisions already made.
  • If the former, it could take decades for this way of thinking to become ‘institutionalised’, turned into ‘standard operating procedures’ and detailed rules to coordinate action across the public sector (suggesting that it requires meaningful, sustained cross-party support).
  • During this time, governments will still face hard choices about which areas are worthy of the most investment. In each case, the aim is vague, the evidence is often weak, it is difficult to compare the return from investments in different public services, and the process has a tendency to revert to a political exercise to determine priorities. In the face of uncertainty, policymakers may revert to tried and trusted rules to make decisions, and reject the more risky, new approach, with uncertain measures and outcomes.
  • The budget process is, in many ways, separate from a focus on social investment, activity and outcomes – largely because it remains an exercise to guarantee spending on established services and departments, or to reduce spending on some services at the margins.
  • There is a level of unpredictability in politics that makes such long term investment problematic – particularly when investment in one area, with quiet winners, comes at the expense of another service, with vocal losers (as demonstrated by any move to close a local hospital, rural school or university department). A tension between long term central planning and short term electoral issues often produces incremental and non-strategic changes, in which services receive ‘disinvestment’ and are allowed to wither.

To some extent, these issues may be addressed well during regular interactions between governments and their ‘social partners’, such as when governments, business and unions get together to produce something akin to a framework in which other policy decisions are made. In that sense, group-government relations represent a form of ‘institutional memory’. Governments and politicians come and go, but group-government relations represent a sense of continuity. This could be the main way to keep social investment on government agendas, as a salient topic or, perhaps more powerfully, as a way of thinking that is taken for granted and questioned rarely, even when new parties enter office.

Yet, there are problems with this ‘corporatist’ aim if it refers to government-wide group-government relations, since policy networks tend to develop on a ‘sectoral and subsectoral’ scale. Governments tend to deal with complex government by breaking it down into manageable chunks. Consequently, for example, medical and teaching unions could engage as one of many trades unions in concert with business, but they tend to speak mostly to education and health departments, in areas with minimal union-business links. Further, such groups tend to be more concerned with the targets and priorities identified at sectoral levels. They may like the idea of soft targets and long term, more meaningful, outcome measures, but have to address short term targets; they may pay attention to cross-sectoral aims when they can, but focus most of their attention on particular fields and priorities specific to their work.

The Scottish Government case

The issues I described are not unique to one government. Yet, some governments also face distinctive problems. For example, in Scotland, as part of the UK, there are specific issues around the links between policy instruments, shared responsibility, and joined up thinking:

  • The Scottish Government remains part of a UK process in which monetary and fiscal policies are determined largely by the Treasury, with the Scottish Government’s primary role to spend and invest.
  • Its position raises awkward questions about the consistency of policies, when spending decisions based on a ‘universalism’ narrative cannot be linked directly to the idea that redistribution should be achieved through taxation. The Scottish Government may be overseeing a spending regime that favours the wealthy and middle classes (universal free services with no means testing) as long as taxation is not sufficiently redistributive.
  • These issues have not become acute since devolution, partly because the Scottish Government budget has been high, and the independence agenda has postponed some difficult debates on new budget priorities. However, they are likely to become more pressing as budgets fall and organisations compete for scarcer resources.

Current issues: more powers, more accountability?

These issues are important right now, because the Smith Commission is currently considering the devolution of further powers to the Scottish Parliament/ Government:

  • A focus on policies such as ‘prevention’ should prompt us to consider how to align priorities and powers. The parallel is with economic policy, in which a key concern relates to the alignment of fiscal powers with monetary union. With prevention, we should ask what’ more powers’ would be used for. For example, would the Scottish Government seek to address health and education inequalities by addressing income inequalities? If so, what powers could be devolved to address this issue without undermining that broader question of macroeconomic coherence?
  • A focus on shared powers raises new issues about accountability. As things stand, accountability is already a problem in relation to outcomes based measures and the devolution of policies to local public bodies. In a ‘Westminster’ style system, we are used to the idea of government accountability to the public via ministers accounting to Parliament, or directly via elections. Yet, if the responsibility for outcomes is further devolved, and outcomes measures span multiple elections, how can we hold governments to account in a meaningful way? Or, as importantly, if elected policymakers still feel bound by these short-term accountability mechanisms, how can we possibly expect them to commit to policies with short term costs, with pay-offs that may only begin to show fruit after they have retired from office?
  • These issues are further exacerbated by a shared powers model, in which we don’t know where UK government responsibility ends and Scottish Government responsibility begins.

This sort of discussion may prompt us to re-examine the idea of a ‘window of opportunity’ for change, at least when we are discussing vague solutions to complex problems. A window may produce a broad change in policymaker commitment to a policy solution, but that event may only represent the beginning of a long, drawn out process of policy change. We often talk about ‘policy entrepreneurs’ lying in wait to present their pet solutions when the time is right – but, in this case, ‘solution’ may be a rather misleading description of a broad agenda, in which everyone can agree on the aims, but not the objectives.

6 Comments

Filed under ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Public health, public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Fracking in Scotland: maximum devolution versus a quadruple lock?

The case of fracking presents an interesting thought experiment about further devolution in Scotland: should you just push for the maximum devolution in each case or encourage the sharing of powers between many levels of government? Of course, it very much depends what you want to do, but I wouldn’t assume that further devolution means reduced drilling activity – largely because the party of government will change over time, even when the level of government responsibility does not. What seems like a good decision now (keep fracking away from the business-friendly UK Tories) may not in the future (and fracking, to me, seems like a very long term concern).

In general, the case for a ‘devo max’ attitude is quite clear: there is high support for further devolution and the more you devolve the more you satisfy a large part of the voting population. This can be exploited quite effectively by a Scottish Government minister arguing that the UK Government is depriving it of powers.

What is the case for not devolving all you can? Let’s use fracking as an example.

What if an explicit decision to share powers makes it less likely that one or two levels of government can control the process? In this case, you might need to go through four obstacles to produce a fracking decision:

  1. Satisfy the European Union that your activities would not contravene directives on water and air quality.
  2. Satisfy the UK Government that you are a fit company to receive a drilling license, and that the rules on drilling are appropriate.
  3. Work within Scottish Government guidance on how to plan land use to produce energy (shale gas, renewable, oil, nuclear) across the whole of Scotland.
  4. Satisfy local authority concerns about the effect of a drilling site in a particular area.

To me, that sounds a lot trickier for a private company, already facing a lot of opposition, than the concentration of power in a smaller territory. Or, at least, the thought process prompts us to ask: what are we devolving these powers for? Is it to satisfy a constitutional desire, or to satisfy a policy-based desire? The chat I see on twitter, aghast at the UK exercising power in this field, suggests that you can address both questions with further devolution – but I’d like to think about that a bit more before I agree.

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics

Life goes on after the Scottish independence referendum

This is the 3000 word experimental-album post, and there is also a shorter radio-edit single for the LSE blog. I discussed these issues at my inaugural lecture and the audio is available here:

There was a no vote in the Scottish independence referendum. Almost immediately, David Cameron announced that Lord Smith of Kelvin would take charge of the process to turn broad UK party promises on further devolution into a more detailed plan. I discuss the main issues regarding that plan here, but in this post I want to focus more on the bigger picture, to link the discussion of Scottish devolution to academic work on the ‘universal’ challenges that all governments face:

  • Does anyone understand the policy process in Scotland?
  • Can anyone control or influence that process?
  • If not, can we hold them to account?
  • To what extent does the Scottish Government face the same challenges as any other?
  • Do Scottish political institutions have the capacity to address them in a distinctive way?

My aim is not to deny that Scottish politics is distinctive, but to argue that its political system, and policy process, shares the same ‘complex government’ features as any country. This may provide a useful sense of perspective after a long period of excitement about one aspect of British politics – which has produced the idea that (a) people know how the Scottish policy process would work after a yes or no vote, and (b) that major constitutional change produces a major change in policy and policymaking. I don’t think that either of those beliefs is true.

I also use the ‘will life go on?’ question, partly to be sarcastic, and partly to show that government and society have an auto-pilot function: while we have been obsessed with the referendum, 500,000 public employees in Scotland have continued delivering public policies out of the public spotlight, and citizens have continued to interact with public services.

In short, my aim is to show you the links between two separate-looking concerns:

Does anyone understand the policy process in Scotland and the UK?

You might get the impression from the debate on the referendum that one side knows how Scottish policymaking works; that if you vote yes or no, you guarantee a particular outcome or, at least, guard against a bad outcome. Yet, the policy process is too complex to for anyone understand fully – from the citizen, dipping in and out of political debate, to the policymaker trying to make a difference, and the academics, still confused after decades of study.

Instead, politicians and campaigners find ways to simplify the process enough to understand and explain, while academics like me develop a language to show why we couldn’t possibly understand the process. We focus on five elements which, on their own, show the complexity of policymaking and, combined, make us thoroughly confused:

  1. ‘Bounded rationality’ suggests that policymakers do not have the time, resources and cognitive ability to consider all information, possibilities, solutions, or consequences of their actions. Instead, they use informational shortcuts or heuristics to produce good-enough decisions. They may be ‘goal-oriented’, but also use emotional, intuitive and often unreliable ‘heuristics’ to make decisions quickly. Their attention may lurch dramatically from one issue to another, and they may draw on quick, emotional judgements to treat different social groups as deserving of government benefits or sanctions.
  2. Institutions are the rules, norms, and practices that influence political behaviour. Some are visible and widely understood – such as constitutions – and others are informal, often only understood by a small number of people. These are the rules that organisations develop to run a complex world into something understandable and manageable. Yet, different rules develop in many parts of government, or government ‘silos’, often with little reference to each other. This can produce: unpredictable outcomes when people follow often contradictory rules when they interact; a multiplicity of accountability and performance management processes which do not ‘join up’; and, a convoluted statute book, made more complex by the interaction between laws and regulations designed for devolved, UK and EU matters.
  3. Policy networks show us how policymakers deal with their ability to pay attention to only a fraction of the things for which they are responsible. We begin with the huge reach and responsibilities of governments, producing the potential for ministerial ‘overload’. Governments divide responsibilities into broad sectors and specialist subsectors, and senior policymakers delegate responsibility to civil servants. ‘Policy community’ describes the relationships that often develop between the actors responsible for policy decisions and the participants, such as interest groups (and businesses, public sector organisations, and other types of government body), with which they engage. For example, civil servants seek information from groups. Or, they seek legitimacy for their policies through group ‘ownership’. Groups use their resources – based on what they provide (expertise, advice, research) and/ or who they represent (a large membership; an important profession; a high status donor or corporation) – to secure regular access to government. In some cases, the relationships between policymakers and participants endure, they ‘co-produce’ policy, and we use the term ‘governance’ to describe a messy world in which it is difficult to attribute outcomes simply to the decisions of governments. Multi-level governance describes this messy process involving the blurry boundaries between policy produced by elected policymakers and civil servants, and the influence of a wide range of governmental, non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental bodies.
  4. Ideas are beliefs or ways of thinking. Some ways of thinking are accepted to such an extent that they are taken for granted or rarely challenged (we often call them ‘paradigms’). Others regard new ways of thinking, or new solutions to problems, and the persuasion necessary to prompt other actors to rethink their beliefs. The policy process involves actors competing to raise attention to problems and propose their favoured solutions. Not everyone has the same opportunity. Some can exploit a dominant understanding of the policy problem, while others have to work harder to challenge existing beliefs. A focus on ideas is a focus on power: to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; and, to keep some issues on the agenda at the expense of others.
  5. Context describes a policymaker’s environment. It includes the policy conditions that policymakers take into account when identifying problems, such as a political system’s geography, demographic profile, economy, and mass behaviour. It can refer to a sense of policymaker ‘inheritance’ – of laws, rules, and programs – when they enter office. Or, we may identify events, either routine, such as elections, or unanticipated, including social or natural crises or major scientific breakthroughs and technological change. In each case, we consider if a policymaker’s environment is in her control and how it influences her decisions. In some cases, the role of context seems irresistible – examples include major demographic change, the role of technology in driving healthcare demand, climate change, extreme events, and ‘globalisation’. Yet, governments have shown that they can ignore such issues for long periods of time.

Can anyone control or influence that process? If not, can we hold them to account?

Each of these five elements could contribute to a sense of complexity. When combined, they suggest that the world of policymaking is too complex to predict or fully understand. They expose slogans such as ‘joined up’ or ‘holistic’ government as attempts to give the appearance of order to policymaking when we know that policymakers can only pay attention to a small portion of the issues for which they are responsible.

The idea of ‘complex government’ can be used to reject the idea – associated with the ‘Westminster model’ – that power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of people in central government. Instead, governments develop strategies to deal with the fact that their powers are rather limited in practice.

Consequently, there is a profoundly important tension between the reality of complex government and the assertion of government control and accountability. Policymakers have to justify their activities with regard to the idea of accountability to the public via ministers and Parliament. We expect ministers to deliver on their promises, and few are brave enough to admit their limitations.

Complex government also prompts us to consider how we can hold policymakers to account if the vast majority of the population does not understand how the policy process works; if policy outcomes seem to emerge in unpredictable or uncontrollable ways, or the allegation of complexity is used to undermine popular participation or obscure accountability. The aim of political reformers, to go beyond representative government and produce more participatory forms of democracy, may solve a general sense of detachment by the political class, and aid the transparency of some aspects of policymaking, but it will not solve this bigger problem.

To what extent does the Scottish Government face the same challenges as any other?

Right now, the Scottish Government faces the same task as a large number of countries:

  1. In the aftermath of economic crisis, and reduced budgets, it has to consider how to deliver similar levels of public services – including health, education, emergency services, and housing – at lower cost.
  2. It also seeks to reduce inequalities – albeit without the policy levers that could make the biggest difference.
  3. It needs to find a balance, to address an inescapable trade-off between a degree of uniformity of national policies and local discretion. People understand this problem in different ways; some bemoan the ‘fragmentation’ of public services and the potential for a ‘postcode lottery’, while others identify more positive notions of flexible government, the potential for innovation, and the value of ‘community-led’ policies or individualised, ‘co-produced’, services.
  4. It needs to find a way to ‘join up’ its public services – to make, for example, health speak to education, social work and policing.

As in many countries, one potential solution to all four problems is the idea of ‘prevention’ or ‘early intervention’. Preventative spending’ and ‘prevention’ are terms used by many governments, and in many policy studies, to describe a broad aim to reduce public service costs (and ‘demand’) by addressing policy problems at an early stage. The argument is that too much government spending is devoted to services to address severe social problems at a late stage. The aim is for governments to address a wide range of longstanding problems – including crime and anti-social behaviour, ill health and unhealthy behaviour, low educational attainment, and unemployment (and newer problems relating to climate change and anti-environmental behaviour) – by addressing them at source, before they become too severe and relatively expensive.

Yet, as in all countries, it cannot simply make this happen, for three main reasons:

  • Inequalities are often described as ‘wicked’ problems because they seem intractable – because governments do not appear to have the means, or perhaps the ability and willingness, to solve them. For example, health inequalities could be caused largely by income inequality, which the Scottish Government would struggle to address, and the UK Government may be unwilling to address radically. Or, we have a mix of solutions, from the often-innocuous (more spending on pre-school education), to the sensitive (restricting the use of alcohol and tobacco) and the downright controversial (preventing crime before it happens).
  • We are back to the idea of complex government – to address social and economic problems at this scale requires something akin to complete central government control over policies and outcomes. Instead, governments try to find ways to cooperate with a wide range of actors to secure some of their aims while dealing with the unintended consequences of their policies.
  • No one is quite sure what ‘early intervention’ or ‘prevention’ is. It sounds intuitive but, when you get into the details and need to produce a detailed plan, ambiguity and uncertainty replace intuition and a shared understanding of what to do.

So, policymakers have a limited amount of control over this process and they face the same problems as any government: the ability to pay attention to only a small proportion of issues, or to a small proportion of public service activity; the tendency for problems to be processed in government ‘silos’ (by one part of government, not communicating well with others); the potential for policymakers, in different departments or levels of government, to understand and address the policy problem in very different ways; and, ‘complexity’, which suggests that policy outcomes often ‘emerge’ from local action in the absence of central control.

These problems can only be addressed in a limited way by government strategies based on: the use of accountability and performance measures; the encouragement of learning and cooperation between public bodies; and, the development of a professional culture in which many people are committed to the same policy approach.

Do Scottish political institutions have the capacity to address them in a distinctive way?

The Scottish Government addresses this problem in two potentially-distinctive ways:

  • Policymaking culture. Many studies explore the idea of a ‘Scottish policy style’, which refers to the ways in which the Scottish Government makes policy following consultation and negotiation with pressure participants such as interest groups, local government organisations and unions
  • Administrative organisation. Many studies explore a distinctive ‘governance’ style, or a relative ability or willingness to devolve the delivery of policy to other organisations in a meaningful way. It sets a broad national strategy, the National Performance Framework, invites local bodies to produce policies consistent with it, and measures performance using broad, long term outcomes. For example, it now encourages local authorities to cooperate with a range of other bodies in the public sector (including health, enterprise, police, fire and transport), private and ‘third’ sector (mostly voluntary or charitable organisations) via established ‘Community Planning Partnerships’ (CPPs), to produce a ‘strategic vision’ for each local area.

In both cases, we usually find that the comparator is ‘Westminster’. Scotland can do things differently (at least when funding is not a problem) because it is smaller, which allows its government to develop closer relationships with key actors, and develop relatively high levels of trust in other bodies to deliver public services.

So, yes, in the context of all that I have said about governments facing the same challenges, and addressing them in similar ways, the Scottish Government has some distinctive policymaking elements.

What about the Scottish Parliament and other bodies?

Yet, consider the effect of this distinctiveness on the rest of the political system. My description of the policy process should already give the sense that it is driven primarily by government, and that parliament and ‘the people’ don’t play much of a role. What if policymaking follows its current trajectory, with more powers devolved to local authorities and a range of bodies involved in CPPs?

  1. 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.
  2. A second consequence of devolving more power locally is interest 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.
  3. These trends may prompt a new agenda on 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.

Conclusion

The conclusion is that, if we focus on the wider policymaking and political process, we should get a stronger sense that a Yes vote or major further devolution would not produce radical change. The idea of giving a Scottish Government the powers to make radical changes to inequalities, public services, and outcomes, should take second stage to the idea that all governments are constrained by a lack of resources to make a quick and fundamental difference to the economy and society. No-one really understands the policy process, and no-one is in the position to control it. Rather, people pay attention to a small number of issues, and work with a large number of other people to negotiate some changes in some areas. This process involves major trade-offs, and the knowledge that attention to a small number of priorities means ignoring the rest.

So, too, should we be sceptical about the idea of a new era of popular participation, sweeping the nation and changing the way we do politics in Scotland. Even the Scottish Parliament struggles to know what happens in the Scottish Government and beyond. Even well-resourced interest groups struggle to keep track of an increasingly devolved system. So, what chance would citizens have if they did not devote their whole lives to politics? We should encourage popular participation, as the right thing to do, but without creating false expectations about the results.

Final note: in the Q&A I mention the Gilmore Girls. To follow up the reference,  see

https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/democracy-max/

4 Comments

Filed under agenda setting, ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change, public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

Scottish Independence: interest from Canada

I spoke to 8 Canadian radio stations this morning about the independence referendum. Here are the sorts of points we discussed. If any relate to Quebec, I relied almost completely on notes provided by Professor Nicola McEwen at the SCCC.

  1. It’sanailbiter. What are the latest polls saying?
    • The ‘poll of polls’ continues to show 52 No and 48 Yes if we remove undecided
    • Undecided was once over 20%, now down to a few % in some polls
    • There was one poll last week with Yes on 51%.
    • It appeared to produce panic among the No camp
    • Now, we are back to the small lead for No
    • Women and older people more likely to vote no
  1. What’s fueling the “Yes” campaign? How longstanding is the Scottish desire to separate?
  • Long history since union in 1707
  • Scotland maintained separate institutions (education, law, religious organisation) and you saw indicators of nationalism when they were threatened
  • Post-war period saw high attachment to the UK and welfare state
  • As that diminished, SNP support rose
  • 1970 breakthrough in Westminster
  • 1999 presence in Scottish Parliament
  • Key: 2011 majority government allowed it to have a referendum
  • By the last interview (Vancouver), I realised that people were also asking me about the Yes campaign, so we talked briefly about national identity, but also the big arguments by parts of the Yes campaign – the appeal to social democracy, the prospect of a more prosperous country, an appeal to protect the welfare state, and to have a country in which people did not receive a Conservative government.
  1. What are the strongest arguments for the “No” side?
  • Big focus on uncertainty
  • Economic consequences – currency union, loss of Bank of England, capital flight and businesses moving, smaller budgets, North Sea oil running out
  • Smaller focus on positive aspects of the union, although the ‘lovebomb’ by UK party leaders has now begun, with cancellation of PMQs and trips to Scotland
  • Then, there is the Gordon Brown factor – don’t leave your comrades behind
  • If no, ‘guarantee’ of further economic devolution (some taxes, borrowing, some social security benefits)
  1. Canada has had its own experiences with Independence votes. We’ve had two of them in Quebec. To what extent, if at all, has Scotland learned from the Quebec example?
  • We hear about the Yes lead in 1995 but a No win in the polls
  • Some talk about the ‘neverendum’

Bigger comparisons (provided by Nicola):

  • Not the same language or culture issue
  • Relative absence of grievance in Scotland about the idea of ‘repatriation of the constitution’
  • Scottish parliament less powerful than Canadian provinces – taxes, benefits, energy policy, etc. – So, if Scotland votes No, there is still a lot of road left on the devolution journey.
  • Devolution not federalism. England makes a federal solution difficult.
  • Quebec sovereignty would have created a big physical hole in the middle of Canada, separating Atlantic Canada from the rest. Scottish Independence doesn’t pose the same geographical threat to the rest of the UK’s continued unity
  1. In the event of a “yes” win…what happens then?
  • Scottish Government talks about 18 months of negotiations
  • Stay in the EU until legal process sorted, which could take longer
  • But in both their interests to be quick, to calm the markets and appear competent
  • Big negotiations – currency union, Scotland’s share of debt, Trident
  • Constitution building in Scotland – interim then ‘civic society’ promise
  • Less change in institutions like the Scottish Parliament and likely to be a lot of policy continuity in already-devolved areas.
  1. It must be tense there now…what’s the mood like in Scotland in the lead up to the referendum?
  • Bizarre atmosphere
  • The 51% yes poll was like a shock to the system
  • Very hard to predict what will happen
  • Big focus, quite exciting, after long boring campaign

I also did Canada morning TV recently:

http://www.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=437020

and

http://www.ctvnews.ca/video?clipId=348416

I follow up on most of these issues in a large number of blogs here – https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/indyref/

Leave a comment

Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, Uncategorized