Now is the perfect time to think about maximising the benefits of Scottish devolution. The first independence referendum produced important new constitutional changes, enshrined in the Scotland Act 2016. It now seems unlikely that there will be a second referendum any time soon. So, we have a window of opportunity to take a step back, understand the Scottish Government’s new powers, and consider how the Scottish Parliament can best hold it to account, encourage new voices in politics, and represent the views of the public. In other words, to think about how devolution’s original aims, summed up by the phrase ‘new politics’ (as compared at the time to ‘old Westminster’).
The Scottish Parliament is now a mature institution, supported strongly by the public, and here to stay. In the early years of devolution, it is understandable that there was more concern about public support and the financial cost of enhanced Scottish democracy. Now, it is time to start looking to the future, to note the Parliament’s success to date, and build on examples of good practice to make it as effective as possible as it takes on new responsibilities.
The Commission on Parliamentary Reform has been doing just that. It was set up by the Presiding Officer, Ken Macintosh MSP, with John McCormick its chair and consisting of representatives of all main parties. Although asked to give the Parliament an ‘MOT’, a metaphor which might suggest that the fewer issues raised the better, the Commission came up with a series of measures to turbo boost the Parliament.
To strengthen the role of the Scottish Parliament, it recommends:
A more assertive role for the Presiding Officer, to control parliamentary business and encourage more effective scrutiny and debate.
Leaner and stronger committees, led by elected convenors, and more able to set the political agenda rather than simply respond to the government.
More independent MSPs, trained to be parliamentarians first and representatives of political parties second.
To enhance the Parliament’s equality and diversity principles, it recommends:
Establishing a vision for an equal and diverse parliament, setting benchmarks for MSP recruitment from under-represented groups, backed up by measures to influence political party recruitment.
To engage in new ways with the public and give ‘the people’ a voice, it recommends:
That the Parliament becomes a world leader in public engagement, experimenting with new ways to gather views and evidence, identifying the most excluded groups and ways to overcome barriers to engagement, and working with schools to encourage greater knowledge of the Scottish Parliament.
A big part of this shift of thinking should be about the ways in which we describe and appreciate MSPs. If elected politics should not be the part-time occupation of people with independent wealth and a larger income from other jobs, we should make sure it provides the kinds of pay and conditions that we’d take for granted in other parts of the public sector. If politics is a profession that requires particular skills which improve with experience, we should be more hesitant about complaining about a political class full of MSPs that never had a ‘proper job’. If we expect MSPs to work incredibly hard for their constituents and engage fully in Parliament, we should note that they routinely work well over the 35 hours we’d associate with most other public sector jobs, often at the expense of their long term health and life outside work. We should also be realistic about what we can expect from MSPs if the Scottish Parliament is to retain its ‘family friendly’ aims and allow MSPs to balance work and life.
This argument about appreciating MSPs should help us take an interesting story from the report. It doesn’t say that we should trade responsibilities and rights, but that we should place as much emphasis on their rights as we should their responsibilities.
So, it provides a series of recommendations which ask MSPs to reconsider their responsibilities to the Scottish Parliament, to focus a little bit less on partisanship and a bit more on the Parliament as an institution. We should expect MSPs to honour their responsibilities to the Parliament, to engage in parliamentary work as parliamentarians (particularly in committees), not simply representatives of their parties, and to help improve the quality of Scottish policy, not simply criticise policy from the Scottish Government.
It also suggests that MSPs deserve comparable employment rights to any other public employees, including the positive moves – such as parental leave and workplace flexibility – that help us remain effective at work and practice ‘self care’ and care for others. In fact, as a beacon for Scottish democracy, the Scottish Parliament should also be a beacon of progressiveness, turning its founding commitment to a ‘family friendly’ culture into best practice for all MSPs with caring and other personal responsibilities. Further, MSPs should not have to apologise for being paid fairly while working hard for the Parliament or when claiming legitimate funds to support their work.
It is in that spirit that I’d suggest reading key parts of the report. Yes, the commission makes strong recommendations for important reforms in parliamentary rules and MSP behaviour. However, it also invites us to remember that the Parliament is here to stay, and a lot of the credit for its success should go to the people who work there.
Paul Cairney is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of Stirling. From January to June 2017 he was the advisor to the Commission on Parliamentary Reform, but these are his personal thoughts on the report.
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 post’s further reading (updated 10.5.2022) is to draw lessons largely 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, several papers:
Summarize how UK or Scottish governments have allegedly exacerbated governance problems
Separate this focus on specific outcomes from the universal constraints on central control common to all complex policymaking systems
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.
Identify the balance struck between accountability and delegation by the Scottish Government since 2007, and the transferable lessons to other systems.
The relevant publications include:
Paul Cairney (2015) ‘How Can Policy Theory Have an Impact on Policy Making?’ Teaching Public Administration, 33, 1, 22-39 PDF
Paul Cairney (2016) ‘The future of Scottish government and public policy: a distinctive Scottish style?’ in (ed) McTavish, D. Politics in Scotland (London: Routledge) PDF
Paul Cairney, Siabhainn Russell and Emily St Denny (2016) “The ‘Scottish approach’ to policy and policymaking: what issues are territorial and what are universal?” Policy and Politics, 44, 3, 333-50 PDF
Paul Cairney (2017) “Evidence-based best practice is more political than it looks: a case study of the ‘Scottish Approach’”, Evidence and Policy, 13, 3, 499-515 PDF
Paul Cairney and Kathryn Oliver (2017) ‘Evidence-based policymaking is not like evidence-based medicine, so how far should you go to bridge the divide between evidence and policy?’ Health Research Policy and Systems (HARPS), DOI: 10.1186/s12961-017-0192-xPDFAM
Paul Cairney, Malcolm Harvey and Emily St Denny (2017) ‘Constitutional Change, Social Investment and Prevention Policy in Scotland’ in (ed.) Keating, M. A Wealthier, Fairer Scotland (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press) PDF
Paul Cairney (2020) “The ‘Scottish Approach’ to Policymaking’ in (ed) Michael Keating The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 463-80 Preprint
Paul Cairney, Emily St Denny, and Sean Kippin (2021) ‘Policy learning to reduce inequalities: the search for a coherent Scottish gender mainstreaming policy in a multi-level UK’, Territory, Politics and Governance, 9, 3, 412-33 https://doi.org/10.1080/21622671.2020.1837661PDF
Paul Cairney, Emily St Denny, and Sean Kippin (2021) ‘Policy learning to reduce inequalities: the search for a coherent Scottish gender mainstreaming policy in a multi-level UK’, Territory, Politics and Governance, 9, 3, 412-33 https://doi.org/10.1080/21622671.2020.1837661PDF
Paul Cairney (2021) ‘The contested relationship between governance and evidence’ in (eds) Christopher Ansell and Jacob Torfing Handbook on Theories of Governance (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar) PDF
Paul Cairney (2021) ‘Would Scotland’s political structures and policy-making change with independence?’ in (eds) Eve Hepburn, Michael Keating and Nicola McEwen Scotland’s New Choice: Independence after Brexit (Edinburgh: Centre on Constitutional Change and The Hunter Foundation) PDF whole book
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 lectureand 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:
The study of public policy, which shows that countries like Scotland face the same basic problems as any other, regardless of the constitutional settlement.
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:
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is commonplace to argue that the Scottish independence referendum has reinvigorated political debate: grabbing the attention of people who would normally not engage; producing high TV audiences for debates; and packing the town halls with people hungry for information. Yet, two problems should give us pause for thought. First, public knowledge of the issues is patchy – as expressed in polls as general uncertainty or incorrect answers to specific questions. Second, public attention to a small number of issues – including the future of a currency Union, Scotland’s membership of the EU, Scotland’s NHS, and Trident – comes at the expense of attention to political and policy processes. The referendum on Scottish independence has not produced the same focus on political reform as the referendum on Scottish devolution.
In the lead up to the referendum in 1997, the proposed Scottish Parliament was at the heart of debates on political reform. Elite support for devolution – articulated by political parties, local governments, and ‘civil society’ groups, via the Scottish Constitutional Convention – was built on the idea of a crisis of legitimation, linked to an image of top-down Westminster politics based on the concentration of government power and marginalisation of Parliament and ‘civil society’. Devolution was accompanied by an electoral system designed to diffuse power among parties, and some measures to help put the Scottish Parliament at the centre of new forms of participative and deliberative democracy. The Consultative Steering Group, a cross-party group with members drawn from ‘civil society’, articulated the principles it would seek to uphold: ‘the sharing of power’ between government, parliament and ‘the people’; accountability of government to parliament and the people; accessibility; and, equal opportunity.
Scottish devolution had an important impact in key areas: producing a more transparent legislature, coalition and minority governments, and increasing the representation of women. Yet, it had a limited impact on ‘power sharing’ and accountability. The Scottish system remains part of the ‘Westminster family’, with a traditional focus on the accountability of ministers to the public via Parliament. This outcome became problematic in several respects: Scottish Parliament committees have limited resources to scrutinise policy and question ministers effectively; they rarely engage in meaningful or direct contact with civil servants; they struggle to gather information on the work of public bodies; and, local authorities generally argue that they are accountable to their electorates, not Parliament. Periods of coalition majority (1999-2007), minority (2007-11) and single party majority (2011-) government have reinforced this image of an often-peripheral body. The Scottish Parliament is a powerful body at the heart of accountability on paper, but not in practice.
Nevertheless, there has been no major debate on the role of the Scottish Parliament since it was established in 1999, and no major reforms have taken place. There have been some individual reports, such as ERS Scotland’s Democracy Max, but nothing like the scale of the SCC. This lack of attention seems significant for three reasons. First, other Parliaments, such as Westminster, have engaged in modernisation during this period. Second, the lead up to the referendum on independence in 2014 seemed like the perfect opportunity to revisit its role within Scotland’s independent or further-devolved political system. Yet, if people have discussed the Scottish Parliament, it is largely to confirm that they have no plans to reform (see footnote 2, citing the Scottish Government’s Scotland’s Future).
Third, the Scottish policy process has changed. The focus of the Scottish Government and its partners has changed markedly, towards the importance of ‘outcomes’, rather than ‘inputs’, as the key measure of government success. The Scottish Government plays an overarching role in policymaking: it sets a broad strategy and invites a large number of public bodies to carry it out. Ministers devolve most day to day policymaking to civil servants. The Scottish Government has also moved from the production of short term targets to long term outcomes measures which go beyond the five-year terms of elected office. It encourages localism, respecting the competing mandate of elected local authorities and encouraging them to work with other public bodies through community planning partnerships. This is not a recent event; it has been the approach of the Scottish Government at least as far back as the National Performance Framework, established in 2007, to provide a strategic framework for policy outcomes and invite a range of public bodies to meet its aims.
Until recently, the Scottish Parliament did not respond to these changes. Its procedures and activities are generally focused on inputs to the political system. Its main role is to scrutinise draft Scottish Government legislation as it is introduced. Its committees have devoted two to three months per year to the scrutiny of the annual budget bill. In general, this scrutiny has a very narrow focus, with a limited emphasis on pre- or post-legislative scrutiny, and its value is unclear. In many ways, its activities do not seem to match the hopes of the Consultative Steering Group.
Consequently, like Westminster, the Scottish Parliament is part of an apparently simple accountability process: power is concentrated in the hands of ministers, who are accountable to the public through Parliament. Yet, as in Westminster, this simple picture of ministerial accountability is increasingly misleading. The Scottish Government oversees a complex public sector, with a large number of accountability mechanisms, most of which do not involve the Scottish Parliament. As things stand, this will continue regardless of the vote in the referendum. Policy will continue to be made out of the public and parliamentary spotlight.
Presenting to colleagues in other disciplines is interesting because it makes you think about your disciplinary assumptions – what you often take for granted and would assume that your home audience knows too. This came up at a workshop led by legal academics. A small group of us sort of pointed out that we were political scientists and would approach the same topic (in this case, constitutional design) in different way. By the time it got to my talk, I felt that the paper I had prepared was incomplete because, from a policy studies perspective, I had my own starting point and my audience would not know about it:
Most policy is made in policy networks/ communities/ subsystems
The state is so large that it may become unmanageable. So, policymakers divide administration into departments and policymaking into sectors and subsector
Ministers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they delegate almost all policymaking to civil servants. Senior civil servants do the same to relatively junior civil servants.
Civil servants rely on participants such as interest group for information and advice. They may also seek a degree of group ‘ownership’ of policy. Civil servants and groups may form fairly close relationships over time.
The key point regards ‘parallel and serial processing’. Policymakers can only engage in serial (considering one issue at a time) while governments as a whole engage in parallel (processing many issues at once).
So, this is the context for a consideration of Parliament. An ill resourced Parliament can engage in serial processing but will struggle to engage in parallel – and therefore to hold the Government to account. The attention of ministers and parliamentarians will lurch from issue to issue, often with important consequences, but their attention to one issue means that they must ignore the others.
This context is so familiar to many policy/ politics scholars that they may be surprised if one takes Parliaments seriously. In fact, when I gave my presentation for a lectureship at Aberdeen in 2004, one audience member pretty much said ‘since parliaments are peripheral to the policy process, why are you bothering with this topic?’. I have two answers:
Parliaments perform other functions – deliberative, participatory, symbolic and, most importantly, they legitimize the outputs of government. Without Parliament, the government would struggle to maintain a wider sense of public legitimacy for its decisions. Consequently, a parliament can appear, simultaneously, to be highly ineffective (in relation to scrutiny) and profoundly effective (at legitimization).
The Scottish Parliament was sold as a powerful institution at the centre of a range of ‘new politics’ initiatives.
So that is the context for the rest of my talk here –
(1) What would you do about these weaknesses in scrutiny. Potential remedies?
I gave three main solutions: (a) lower your expectations about what can happen; (b) increase parliamentary resources (permanent staff seem like better value than elected MSPs in this context) to increase MSP incentives to engage in scrutiny; and (c) learn from other countries and decide if you want to transfer their practices. As I discuss with colleagues in a comparison with Sweden, we may not be willing to give up what we have (clear lines of accountability) to secure what they have (more cross-party cooperation).
(2) Should there be a ‘big bang’ reform of the Scottish political system to address these problems? I tried very much not to answer this question. It doesn’t seem likely to happen or to change the fundamental relationship between government and parliament.
Or, what if you put two of those arguments head to head to see if the shorter discussion/ picture won the day? To put this to the test, the case study here is this question: Should we have more Members of the Scottish Parliament?
As you can see, the ‘against’ argument is punchier and easier to make (Politicians …) :
The ‘for’ argument is more equivocal and takes more time to make (We *talk* about direct democracy …):
So, the ‘against’ argument wins, right? I’m not saying that we should have more MSPs – maybe it would be a waste of time without a cultural shift in party politics (towards the sort of behaviours we might associate, rather vaguely indeed, with the much lauded Nordic countries – and the made up Borgen in particular). But it does mean that we should have a think about it while we can. The ‘against’ case is generally so strong that it doesn’t occur to people to challenge it. Maybe our focus on constitutional change will give us that chance.
I am part of the new ESRC Scottish Centre for Constitutional Change which begins work from Monday for two years on a large set of projects relating to constitutional change in Scotland. Here is a brief outline of part of its focus:
Constitutional change agendas in Scotland produce ‘windows of opportunity’ to discuss the future of Scottish politics and policymaking. In the 1990s, the devolution agenda was used by organisations such as the Scottish Constitutional Convention to propose major political reforms – associated with the phrase ‘new politics’ – regarding the role of government, parliament, interest groups and the public in politics. The independence agenda has prompted similar proposals from organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, recommending more local forms of public participation, and the ‘Common Weal’ project, recommending corporatism (close cooperation between government, business groups and unions) and greater popular participation, as part of radical reforms of Scotland’s social and economic organisation. The common theme is the idea that a Scottish government can produce a distinctive ‘policy style’ (the way that it makes and implements policy). This style may be used to pursue an alleged social and democratic tradition in Scotland that has much more in common with the ‘consensualism’ of the Nordic countries than the ‘majoritarianism’ of the UK. Yet, the experience of devolution suggests that Scottish politics shares many features with its Westminster counterpart. Both systems are driven by government, with Parliaments performing a limited scrutiny role. Public participation is limited largely to Scottish Parliament and UK General elections. Many of the differences between Scottish and UK practices – such as a more ‘bottom up’ approach to public service delivery, in which local authorities are given more autonomy – may result from the Scottish Government’s size and policy capacity rather than its distinctive culture.
In this context, we examine a future Scottish Government’s ability to make policy in a distinctive way, in partnership with the main social partners (business, unions, the third sector), public sector bodies and professions, the public and the Scottish Parliament to elaborate shared long-term goals. We identify policymaking constraints which are specific to Scotland (including its size and responsibilities) and common to all systems (including the limited resources of policymakers and a challenging economic context which may undermine some types of policy innovation). We draw on the experience of devolution to paint a realistic picture of potential changes in policy and policymaking and use these insights to examine the Government’s ability to pursue major reforms. We focus on socioeconomic policies which rely on its ability to link taxation policy to spending priorities and policy outcomes. We use ‘preventative spending’ as a case study, examining policy outcomes and linking them to the policies of governments. This area is a key test of the ability of a small government to pursue ‘holistic’ government by bringing together a range of departments and organisations to consider the reinforcing (or undermining) effect of a range of policies on each other – and the need to cooperate in a meaningful way, with a range of organizations, to secure shared policy aims.
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.