Tag Archives: Scottish politics

How should we interpret the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy?

SSIN

The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy 2015 is now out. It is a great example for students of agenda setting and framing because an apparently dry account of recent trends may come to dominate the highest level debates in Scottish politics.

The stakes are high because the figures – showing some drops in attainment at key stages, and major gaps in inequalities of attainment at all stages – are being interpreted in this context:

Allegations of government shenanigans

The SNP Government’s opponents reckon that it delayed the results because they were so bad as to undermine the SNP vote in the Holyrood elections in 2016.

Allegations of misplaced priorities

The SNP Government’s critics reckon that it has funded free tuition for the middle classes at the expense of funding to reduce attainment gaps at school (which make it less likely for people in deprived areas to go to benefit from free University education).

SNP Government priorities

Education will be the big focal point from 2016-21 because the SNP has signalled it as the top priority (symbolised by the fact that John Swinney is now in charge). Indeed, Nicola Sturgeon promised at one point to ‘close the attainment gap completely’ (report on original speech).

The SNP manifesto in 2016 presents more of a mix of aims (using more equivocal language). Its promise to ‘close the attainment gap between young people from the most and those from the least affluent backgrounds’ really means reduce (‘our mission is to make significant progress in closing the gap within the next parliament and to substantially eliminate it within a decade’), while its promise to deliver ‘significant progress in closing the attainment gap within the lifetime of the next parliament and substantially eliminating it within a decade’ betrays the sense that it does not really know how to tell how far it can reduce the gap and declare almost-complete success.

This background gives us a lens through which to view most analysis of the figures

As you’d expect, so far the immediate reaction is rather critical:

The SNP Government response will be trickier-than-usual for the following reasons:

  1. Free University tuition is non-negotiable.

It won’t give up on free University tuition (for Scottish students and, in effect, EU students outside the UK), and it doesn’t accept the argument that its spending on University tuition comes at the expense of its spending on pre-school and school spending. So, it has to find the money, to reduce the attainment gap, from other areas (producing the possibility of limited success in education and worsening results in other high profile areas such as health).

  1. Its ability to link the issue to Scottish independence is now more limited.

The usual (and often plausible) response to the inequalities in attainment gap is to argue that: (a) it is caused largely by socio-economic conditions such as poverty, rather than teaching; and, (b) the Scottish Government does not have the tax/ spending power to reduce the problem at source. Yet, Sturgeon has staked her reputation on making a difference despite these constraints.

So, what happens next?

At some point, we might have a less emotive, less partisan, and more considered look at these figures. If so, I’d like to be clearer on three different kinds of question. The first two are about setting milestones so that we don’t wait until the figures come out before we pronounce success/ failure, and the third is about the figures themselves:

  1. What level of inequality of attainment is OK?

Whatever language the SNP uses, it won’t close this gap completely. Instead, we could benefit from an honest and pragmatic discussion about the level of inequality in attainment that we think is acceptable (at least at each stage of policy development). In Scotland, we tell a good story about consensus politics, but it won’t mean much if the government pretends to hold on to aims it doesn’t think are achievable, while the opposition criticises any gap regardless of progress.

  1. What trends are acceptable?

In agenda setting studies we note the profound effects of trends in data, which can be more important (in gaining attention) than the baseline figures. If we want to try to avoid getting sucked into these lurches of attention to often-minimal change, we could benefit from a sense of perspective on trends. Is any positive effect a cause for celebration or negative effect a cause for prophecies of doom? No. Yet, the stakes are so high that people are ready to pounce at any minute, or at least every year. Governments play that game too, with performance management systems that really don’t help (and, for example, Robert Geyer has a different way to consider long term success and failure).

  1. What do these figures really mean?

I don’t think the survey was designed with these high political stakes in mind. If they are to remain so crucial to political debate, I’d like to see more explanation – to the public and political commentators – of the method and results, to give a clearer sense of how to interpret the baseline figures as well as the trends.

Otherwise, for example, people will point to the wacky drop in attainment progress in S2 (compared to P7) and wonder what the hell happened (particularly since it exposes the major gap in attainment linked to deprivation). The report itself mentions the well-discussed problem of transition from primary to secondary school, but could discuss more the likelihood that this statistical dip is caused partly by measurement (possible explanations include: the expectation for S2 is disproportionately high, given the problems of transition; or, secondary and primary teachers have different view on how well someone is doing when they enter S1).

For further reading, see Lucy Hunter Blackburn’s site Adventures in Evidence, which provides more frequent and in-depth (and critical!) coverage of Scottish education policy than mine.

See also A memo to John Swinney

For some of the coverage, see for example:

Numeracy rate falls among pupils in Scotland, latest figures show

 

 

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Let’s have another debate on Scottish independence just in case the hermits missed all the others

It did not take long for political parties and commentators to explain the Holyrood election result and state with incredible certainty what it means for the future of the Union. Yet, the election result did not really tell us anything more about the two things we already know:

First, in the short term, the only event that matters is the ‘Brexit’ vote next month. If most UK voters choose to leave the European Union, and most voters in Scotland vote to remain, we will have a constitutional crisis. The SNP and its allies will push for a second referendum on Scottish independence, it will have the votes to pass a bill to that effect in the Scottish Parliament, and the only obstacle will be a UK Government led by the party that just used a referendum to justify major constitutional change! It is difficult to see why the Conservatives would bother to oppose a referendum under those circumstances.

Second, in the absence of this event and its consequences, we know that we are just killing a horrible amount of time until the next meaningful opportunity to vote on Scottish independence. In my mind, and assuming that the SNP continues to win elections in Scotland, the gap has always been about ten years: enough to give the sense that time has passed since the last vote, and see if you can produce a ‘generational’ change in attitudes; and, not too long for an independence-friendly party trying to keep it off the top of the agenda and its supporters happy.

So, if the main political parties were being completely honest, they would say that they are pretty much forced to (a) tread water until the referendum next month, then (b) wait for a very long time. Instead, we have the usual political posturing. Equal first prize must go to the Scottish Conservatives, now arguing that its ability to command 24% of Holyrood seats gives it a mandate as the protector of the Union, and the SNP which has signalled its intention to keep the debate going just in case ‘the leopard man’ has not heard about the issue. The parties know that the only other triggers of an early referendum – the SNP’s idea of checking the opinion polls, and the Scottish Greens’ mention of a petition with maybe 100,000 votes – are weak, and yet they feel they have to keep up the longest game of chicken in Scottish political history.

Similarly, it is too soon for commentators to argue that this election marks the complete transformation to identity politics in Scotland. It must be very tempting to argue simply that people vote SNP for independence and the Conservatives for the union, particularly since we all know that we are speculating just now anyway. Still, longer term, more detailed, analysis of trends in SNP support since 2007 suggests, very strongly, that the biggest factor has been ‘valence politics’. The SNP did well in 2007, and very well in 2011, because ‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’. People vote for a party when they respect its leader, its vision for the future, and have a high expectation of its competence while in office – and the SNP has benefited from being a party that looks highly professional (although one’s belief in the competence of the SNP may be linked strongly to one’s belief in independence).

Similarly, the Conservatives went big on their leader (many of their promotional materials did not even mention the party) and used a proxy for governing competence – strong opposition – in the absence of the likelihood of them being in government. Labour may also have suffered because, compared to the SNP and Conservatives, its party and strategy seems shambolic. So, identity politics matters, as the factor which underpins core attitudes, but valence politics may better explain the trends in support for each party.

Still, perhaps the biggest lesson from this election is that if you are determined to make and act on this argument about identity politics you should do it well. The SNP and Conservatives did it well. In contrast, too many senior people in Scottish Labour – including Kezia Dugdale on Good Morning Scotland, and Anas Sarwar – expressed disappointment that the electorate did not think like them (a position criticised by people like John McTernan). The two biggest parties in the Scottish Parliament might be annoyingly narrow-minded, but at least they know what they are doing.

 

 

 

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Scottish Parliament committees: when radical change isn’t radical change

You can find some very useful suggestions for Scottish Parliament committee reform in the summary and full speech (2015) by former Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick. They follow some useful suggestions by the Consultative Steering Group, which set out its plans for the committees in 1998.

The theme in both cases is: let’s find a way for the Scottish Parliament to be important, and for business-like committees (not partisan plenary debate) to be at the heart of its operation. Put more critically: let’s produce some good structures or reforms in the hope that political parties don’t act like political parties.

So, while the CSG expressed some hopes that the committees would perform a new role consistent with Scottish Constitutional Convention’s hopes for ‘new politics’ (‘more participative, more creative, less needlessly confrontational’), Marwick perhaps expresses some disappointment that it didn’t work out too well.

That said, Marwick’s suggestions get to the heart of many practical limits to the operation of committees. To demonstrate, look first at the way I summarised parliamentary life so far (for the Sunday Post):

“The Scottish Parliament’s committees have always suffered from a gap between expectations and reality. When the Scottish Parliament was introduced, there were high hopes that it would function far more effectively than Westminster. The architects of devolution rejected a second chamber in favour of a powerful unicameral Parliament with committees at the heart. To make up for the lack of a revising chamber, they front-loaded the legislative scrutiny process, with committees tasked first to consider the principles, then amend, draft bills. To reinforce committee power, they made many of them permanent, and gave committees the functions of two different kinds of Westminster committee – Standing (to scrutinise legislation) and Select (to monitor government departments and ministers). They have the ability to hold agenda setting inquiries, monitor the quality of Scottish Government consultation, and initiate legislation. The idea is that committees become specialist and business-like (leave your party membership at the door) and their members become experts, able to hold the government to account, and provide alternative ideas if dissatisfied with the government’s response.

The reality rarely lives up to the rhetoric. The party system still dominates, with MSPs whipped to ensure government control of parliamentary business (apart from the brief period of minority government from 2007-11). Parties control committee membership and have overseen a large turnover, which undermines MSP expertise. The committees are ill-resourced, and they struggle to generate the amount of information they need to perform scrutiny well. So, it is no surprise that committees struggle to keep on top of the evidence given to them. They have the ability to do little more than one piece of work before moving on to the next”.

Marwick’s suggestions at least address the latter points

Scottish Parliament committees are ill-resourced and their MSPs are spread too thin. They will often serve more than one committee and move between committees – which, if combined with high MSP turnover in every election, undermines their ability to become specialists in their field. So, Marwick recommended a smaller number of larger committees to reduce that thin spread and encourage more effective scrutiny.

Marwick also pushed for elected convenors to address the problem of committee/ government distance. Right now, the governing party can appoint its share of convenors (and members) and ensure that there is little distance between the governing/ scrutiny roles. The Scottish Parliament is also small and there is not the same chance (as in Westminster) to make a career out of being a backbencher/ convenor of committee. Electing those roles would make convenors ‘directly accountable to Parliament’ rather than subject to the whims of parties (maybe).

These moves would represent radical reforms in the Scottish Parliament, but …

I wonder if anyone outside of Holyrood would notice the difference. Certainly, they would not radically change the fairly traditional Westminster-style relationship between government and parliament in which the government governs and the parliament struggles to provide scrutiny with limited resources. Nor would they change the very strong tendency for MSPs to act along party lines. You can train new MSPs in the ways of the parliament (an abstract concept that takes time to appreciate), but also expect them to be socialised and whipped by their parties (a concrete process that you’ll be expected to recognise immediately).

These reforms would take place during a time of diminishing parliamentary influence

In a Political Quarterly article, I identify two aspects of devolution that may diminish the Scottish Parliament’s role in the near future:

  1. further devolution from the UK to Scotland will see the Scottish Parliament scrutinise more issues with the same paltry resources
  2. further devolution from the Scottish Government to local public bodies will see the Scottish Parliament less able to gather enough information to perform effective scrutiny.

Both issues highlight the further potential for the Scottish Parliament, heralded as a body to ‘share power’ with the government and ‘the people’, to play a peripheral role in the policy process. To all intents and purposes, the new Scotland Act will devolve more responsibilities to Scottish ministers, without a proportionate increase in parliamentary resources to keep tabs on what ministers do with those powers.

Perhaps more importantly, the Scottish Parliament can only really keep tabs on broad Scottish Government strategies. What happens when it devolves more policymaking powers to local public bodies, such as the health boards that give limited information to committees and the local authorities that claim their own electoral mandate?

In other words, the proposed reforms address the practical limits to parliamentary influence at a time when those limits are being further tested.

Are there any issues on which the parties can agree?

They also don’t really solve the problem of partisanship, which means (for example) that it will be difficult to get the parties to agree about the kinds of issues they should examine in depth. To be effective as a group, MSPs really need to prompt the Scottish Government to do something (perhaps more quickly) that it already wants to do, or find an issue that transcends party politics (perhaps such as the representation of women in the Scottish Parliament, as part of an inquiry into the extent to which it represents important social groups). In most cases, this won’t happen.

So, let’s welcome some parliamentary reform but be realistic about its effect.

[I discussed these issues briefly on Good Morning Scotland, 10.5.16 at 7.07am. It’s true – ask my cousin. He heard the whole thing.]

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In the Scottish Parliament election, the only clear majority was secured by men

Although the symbolic representation of women in the Scottish Parliament was a key plank of the ‘new politics’ of Scottish devolution, women continue to secure just over one-third of seats. In 2016, women secured 45 of 129 seats (35%), which compares with 37% in 1999, 40% in 2003, 33% in 2007, and 35% in 2011.

The number of women in the Scottish Parliament used to depend strongly on the fate of Scottish Labour: the high point of 40% in 2003 was on the back of 28 Labour MSPs representing 56% of its group and accounting for 55% of women MSPs (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 106; Cairney et al, 2015). At the time, it was the only party to ‘twin’ constituencies and alternate women/ men candidates on the regional list (Mackay and Kenny, 2007: 86-7).

Other parties pursued less systematic or effective measures: the Liberal Democrats’ were ‘half hearted’ (Kenny and MacKay, 2013: 8; Cairney, 2011, 30); the SNP had ‘an informal rule of thumb that [regional] lists should be more-or less gender balanced’ (Mackay and Kenny, 2007: 87), the Conservatives sometimes ensured that women ‘were generally placed in favourable positions on the party lists’, and the Greens alternated men and women on party lists with uncertain effect (Kenny and MacKay, 2013: 9).

Now, as Labour’s fortunes have dropped, the decision by the SNP to use stronger measures – including All Women Shortlists for seats vacated by retiring MSPs – seems particularly important (Kenny and Mackay, 2013; Kenny, 2015; Swann, 2016a; on the substantive representation of women, see Engender 2016a; 2016b).

You can see the difference in the membership of the parties that really try …

Women MSPs, by Party, 1999-2016

1999 2003 2007 2011 2016
SNP 15 (42.9%) 9 (33.3%) 12 (25.5%) 19 (27.5%) 27 (42.9%)
Conservative 3 (16.7%) 4 (22.2%) 5 (31.2%) 6 (40.0%) 6 (19.4%)
Labour 28 (50.0%) 28 (56.0%) 23 (50.0%) 17 (45.9%) 11 (45.8%)
Greens 0 (0%) 2 (28.6%) 0 (0%) 1 (50%) 1 (16.7%)
Lib Dems 2   (11.8%) 2   (11.8%) 2   (12.5%) 1   (20.0%) 0 (0%)
Total 48 (37.2%) 51 (39.5%) 43 (33.3%) 45 (34.9%) 45 (34.9%)

 

Source: adapted and updated (using figures from Gender Politics, 2016 and Swann, 2016b) from Cairney et al (2015: 9). Table does not include ‘other’ parties/ independents.

table 3 women

Apologies for the Harvard versus weblink referencing. This is a short section  copy/pasted from an article  that I am writing for Scottish Affairs (to be published in August 2016). You can find the full paper here:  Cairney 2016 Scottish Parliament election 2016 in Scottish Affairs 11.5.16

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The Scottish Parliament Election 2016: another momentous event but dull campaign

Abstract. The Scottish Parliament election in 2016 produced two surprising results: it represents a reversal of SNP/ Labour party fortunes so complete that we now take it for granted, but the SNP did not achieve a widely-expected majority; and, the huge surge of support for the Scottish Conservatives was enough to make it (easily) the second largest party. A mistaken sense of inevitability of the result – another SNP majority – helped produce a dull campaign and keep alive the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence. This article has four main sections: putting the 2016 election in recent historical context; considering the implications of consistently high SNP support on the constitution; highlighting key issues in the election campaign; and, examining the SNP’s policy agenda from 2016.

Introduction

The Scottish Parliament election in 2016 was momentous, but not entirely for the reasons we expected. The main outcome is the SNP’s third victory in a row since 2007, which is likely to keep it in office until at least 2021. The results eclipse the former record by Scottish Labour, which governed Scotland in coalition with the Scottish Liberal Democrats from 1999-2007. The SNP also improved its constituency votes and seats, but lost enough ground in the regional list to deprive it of a second outright majority in a row. Consequently, given such high expectations for the SNP – on the back of its ‘landslide’ victory in 2011 and thumping win in the UK General Election in 2015 – its third Holyrood election victory in a row can be interpreted as a further indicator of its success but also a sign that its dominance should not be taken for granted. Its circa-45% share of the vote was enough to produce a majority in 2011 but not 2016.

Further, while the now-predictable decline of Scottish Labour seems almost complete, this time the main beneficiary was the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party which became the main opposition in Holyrood for the first time. The Liberal Democrats have also seen their fall from grace confirmed by a second poor showing which relegates them to the fifth and smallest party in Holyrood.

The historical significance of these trends is difficult to overstate. In the first Holyrood election in 1999 it seemed inevitable that Scottish Labour would be the largest party, with the SNP likely to represent an opposition party well off the pace. The early years were premised on the idea that, with devolution secure, the biggest party could focus on the political reforms associated with ‘new politics’, combining key measures associated with symbolic politics (including the greater representation of women and participation in politics beyond the ‘usual suspects’) and substantive policy change.

This expectation continued in 2003 but ended in 2007 when the SNP became the largest party by one seat. In 2011, its ‘landslide’ victory to secure a majority of seats – and trigger a process which led to a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 – seemed extraordinary (particularly since Holyrood uses a mixed-member-proportional, not plurality, system).

Now, in 2016, the SNP has become so dominant of Scottish politics that its majority seemed inevitable. This sense of inevitability was bolstered by its showing in the UK General election 2015, when the party that always previously secured a small minority of seats – its highest ever number of seats was 11 (of 71, from 30% of the vote in October 1974) – won 56 of 59 (aided by a plurality system which exaggerated the effect of its 50% share of the vote). By 2016, on the back of several opinion polls, many expected its electoral dominance to be complete (although compare Philip, 2016 with Carrell and Brooks, 2016a).

Consequently, although the change over 17 years is phenomenal, this recent sense of inevitability helped produce a dull campaign. In all other Holyrood elections there was either the promise of novelty (from 1999) or high competition between the two main parties (from 2007), to produce a sense of the high stakes involved. So, we saw meaningful competition to accentuate important differences between parties on key policy issues or portray a party’s better vision and image of governing competence. This time, we knew that, for the most part, one manifesto counted far more than the rest.

It is also difficult to find evidence of success when the other parties have tried to interrogate the SNP’s record in government on issues such as health, education, and policing (Cairney, 2016b). This limitation helped produce, in early post-election commentary, a feeling (albeit with limited evidence) that the SNP didn’t need to rely as much on this image of governing competence, since so many of its new members and high number of voters seem to remain enthused more by the implications of SNP electoral success (more constitutional change) than its record in office. SNP spokespeople countered with the argument that the election represents a public vindication of its record.

So, we need to wait for detailed analysis on the role of valence politics and, in particular the parties’ images of governing competence, which was so central to SNP success in 2007 and 2011 (‘most voters thought that the party would do a better job in office than its rivals’ – Johns et al, 2013: 158).

Still, this legacy of the 2014 referendum can be found in the election debates in 2016. While the SNP has been looking for ways to keep alive, but postpone, a second referendum, the three main opposition parties continue to describe the SNP as a one issue party or extol the possibilities for policy change already afforded by further devolution in 2015. Of the few substantive issues to be discussed without a referendum frame, perhaps only educational attainment stands out because it is the issue on which First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has asked to be judged (while ‘fracking’ remains the issue that many in the SNP leadership would like to ignore).

Overall, this election comes with a strong sense of unfinished business elsewhere. In the short term, it has been overshadowed either by UK party politics (in the run up to local and mayoral elections) or the ‘Brexit’ referendum (June 2016) on the UK’s future in or out of the European Union. In the longer term, the SNP’s continued dominance keeps the issue of Scottish independence high on the agenda.

This has been the introduction to an article  that I am writing for Scottish Affairs (to be published in August 2016). You can find the full paper here:  Cairney 2016 Scottish Parliament election 2016 in Scottish Affairs 11.5.16

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Would the Scottish Conservatives provide ‘strong opposition’? Not really

The Scottish Conservatives are running with the idea that they would provide strong opposition to the SNP. What does this really mean?

  1. We know we won’t win, but we might come second. It’s a decent way to turn a quite-low-but-maybe-rising share of the vote into a huge moral victory. It’s a good slogan that might sway some people if they don’t think too much about the details.
  2. We will hold the SNP to account in the Scottish Parliament. No, it won’t. The Conservatives will have a small representation in committee and plenary votes and won’t be able to do more than it did from 2011 (can you think of any examples of its strong opposition since then?). The only difference is that it would go first in First Minister’s Questions every week. FMQs has always been the Scottish Parliament’s equivalent of theatre. It is not an arena for ‘strong’ opposition. It’s there for some very poor entertainment.
  3. We could replace the SNP. This is the least convincing element of ‘strong opposition’. Usually, the implicit opposition message is that, if the government has a shocker, and the opposition is on top of things, the latter might get elected in the former’s place. This will not happen. So, in that sense, and however badly they are doing just now, it seems more realistic to favour Scottish Labour as the most realistic opposition party. In these terms, you might say that Scottish Labour would offer a bit less weak opposition.

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What happens when policymakers have multiple, potentially contradictory, objectives? The curious case of Scotland’s ‘fiscal framework’

It is common in policy studies to state that policymakers or governments have many potentially-contradictory objectives:

  • When we focus on ‘complex government’ we note their large size, tendency to break functions down into specialist departments and units, and for those units to produce policies which undermine those of others.
  • When we focus on policymakers, we question their ability to produce a consistent set of rank-ordered preferences.

Indeed, Lindblom’s famous suggestion is that policymakers only know how to rank their preferences when they are forced to choose between them.

Yet, in the case of Scotland’s finances, the other option is to defer those choices (perhaps indefinitely, perhaps until events supersede the original problem).

In that sense, the deferment of a key part of Scotland’s ‘fiscal framework’ is part of a fine tradition in Scottish politics to try one’s hardest not to talk about the size of the Scottish Government budget. The mythical ‘Barnett formula’ served this purpose well by providing an almost automatic way to adjust the size of the grant that the Treasury gives to the Scottish Government.

Here is the curious bit

Then came the famous ‘Vow’ which promised to maintain Barnett, and then came the new fiscal framework to deliver greater Scottish Government fiscal autonomy while also protecting the Barnett formula.

The problem is that these developments are starting to show how contradictory Scotland’s devolution settlement is becoming:

  • The ‘Barnett formula’ is a way to adjust the Treasury’s allocation of funds to the Scottish Government. Giving the Scottish Government a greater ability to control taxation reduces the role of the Barnett formula that the party leaders vowed to protect (in part, this only seems like such a contradiction because ‘Barnett’ is often used to describe Scotland’s good financial settlement, not the formula itself).
  • The two key principles underpinning the new fiscal framework – neither government should be disadvantaged by the decision to devolve (the Smith Commission’s ‘no detriment’ principle) and the reforms should not provide greater public services for one area without an equivalent rise in its taxes (‘taxpayer fairness’) – do not get along. As Bell, Eiser, and Phillips argue:

it is impossible to design a block grant adjustment system that satisfies the spirit of the ‘no detriment from the decision to devolve’ principle at the same time as fully achieving the ‘taxpayer fairness’ principle: at least while the Barnett Formula remains in place.

Instead, they present three main options which come closer to one principle and further from the other.

So, to resolve this issue once and for all, the UK Government needs to form an agreement with the Scottish Government (or make a decision based on the extent to which it wants to please the Scottish Government), knowing that it will likely satisfy one policy aim at the expense of the other.

What seems to have happened is (a) an agreement between governments that neither government wants (a ‘compromise’), secured by (b) an agreement to see how it goes for 5 years before revisiting the issue again. In part, this allows the UK Government and the Conservative party to argue that it has delivered ‘the vow’ and put off the big fiscal decision until after the 2016 election.

So, the new framework no longer delivers the advantage of the Barnett formula (the ability to continue for a long period with minimal attention, combining a generous block settlement sort-of-adjusted according to population). Instead, we may be treated to the same tense negotiation and ‘compromise’ every run up to a Scottish Parliament election.

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What happens when we are too distracted by referendums to pay attention to policy?

It is common for people to argue that our obsession with the UK constitution distracts us from the day to day business of policymaking. It was a feature of the Scottish independence referendum and seems to be a feature of the Brexit debate. There are a few variations of the argument, but they seem to relate to two general concerns plus (now) an extra concern for the devolved governments:

(1) central government ministers indulge their obsession with a referendum instead of solving policy problems

(2) other actors (the media, parliament, the interested public) will pay attention to the referendum instead of keeping pressure on ministers to solve policy problems.

(3) the Brexit referendum will overshadow devolved elections.

The Scottish referendum suggests that some of these concerns were misplaced because it provided an opportunity to debate the ‘big questions’ of policy (such as, for example, should Scotland become a social democratic state?) and attracted the interest of parts of the public that usually don’t engage in (party) politics.

Still, some people retained the sense that we were talking about post-independence public services while the services themselves were going to crap (the usual examples relate to education attainment, the NHS, and Police Scotland).

All I want to add to this discussion is this point:

Such arguments presuppose that ministers make a big difference when they pay attention to policy problems, particularly when many potentially-critical audiences are watching them like hawks. In other words, they have the resources (including money, staffing, ideas, cognitive skills, and ‘political will’) to turn around services and close inequalities in outcomes.

There are two main reasons to qualify this assumption.

  1. Policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny fraction of their responsibilities anyway

There are 101 theories and concepts in policy studies which describe the limits to ministerial and central government control. The big message is that policymakers already ignore almost all of the issues for which they could take responsibility (and the ‘semi-sovereign public’ ignores far more). This is not to say that more distractions won’t make a difference. Rather, my point is to reject the binary distinction between total and zero policymaker attention.

  1. Elections can be bigger distractions than referendums

High stakes elections tend to prompt political parties to make promises that are achievable and easy to explain with simple stories. There is not much incentive to tell voters that policy problems (and policymaking systems) are complex, central governments can only do so much to solve them (especially within 5 year electoral terms), and maybe they should delegate a lot of this responsibility to local actors. So, the short term promises often provide far bigger distractions to long term aims.  This is not to say that more distractions won’t make things worse. Rather, my point is to reject the idea that we were half-way to solving life’s big problems before people got obsessed with the constitution. Or maybe my point is that a lot of media and public attention prompts policymakers to do silly things, to try to look like they are trying to solve policy problems. A distraction is not always unwelcome.

I expand on both points in this post, so won’t repeat them here. Still, if you have read a few of my posts now, you might be getting the impression that I just make these same points in each one. If so, my message to you is: thank you for reading a few of my posts. I enjoy the hits.

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The Scottish Parliament election 2016: the talking points so far

It would be tempting to ignore the Scottish Parliament election campaigns in 2016 because the result seems like a foregone conclusion: the SNP will form a majority government for the next 5 years. Yet, let’s not give in to that temptation by confusing the boring predictability of the result with its monumental nature. It will represent the peak of a transformation in Scottish electoral politics since 1999 that almost no-one predicted (apart from the Nostradamus-style harbingers of doom and wild optimists). As a result, it presents an intriguing mix of talking points: some of them relate to the specific issues that have arisen so far, while others are bubbling under the surface.

The big talking point: the likely result 

The SNP’s victory will happen despite an electoral system (‘mixed-member proportional’) designed to be far more proportional than the plurality system of Westminster: 56 seats from regional lists, using the d’Hondt divisor, offset some of the distribution of the 73 constituency seats determined by a plurality vote. Yet, they only make it more proportional. The SNP’s 50% share of the vote secured 56 of 59 MPs (95%) in the 2015 UK General election. If, as seems likely from the polls, it can maintain that level of support in constituency votes, it might already secure a majority before the regional votes are counted (one forecast is a total of 72, or 56%, of seats, compared to Labour’s 32 and Conservatives’ 18).

The likelihood of an SNP majority has produced a weird game of chicken in which we all know what will happen regardless of the campaign but the party leaders still dare each other to declare the result, knowing that admitting defeat opens you to claims of defeatism (as with Conservative leader Ruth Davidson) while hinting at victory wins you the most ‘arrogant’ prize. Further, while the smaller parties mattered in 2003, they have now become a sideshow. The most consistently serious party remains the Scottish Greens which may secure as many (4) seats as the former-coalition-government Scottish Liberal Democrats, with the increasingly comic UKIP likely to receive none.

Talking points in the election so far

The main talking point is that the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 did not settle the constitutional debate. Instead, the main opposition parties (and Scottish Labour in particular) have woven into their 2015 and 2016 campaigns the idea that the SNP will use any election victory to push for a second referendum. Yet, the only plausible trigger (in the short term) relates to the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU: if most voters in Scotland vote to stay in, and most voters in the UK overall vote to leave, it would ‘almost certainly’ prompt SNP demands for the second vote.

The prospect of a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum also prompted the main UK parties to promise substantially greater devolution (before the May 2016 election) to secure a No vote. So, the Scotland Act 2016 contains provisions to enhance the Scottish Government’s powers, including a greater ability to modify income tax rates and bands and reform some aspects of social security.

Greater devolution has prompted much debate but no resolution on how to use the so-called ‘Scottish rate of income tax’. What could have been a values-driven discussion about the benefits and costs of raising income tax to fund services, or about who should win and lose from taxation changes, has generally turned into a pedantic and (perhaps deliberately) confusing debate about the meaning of ‘progressive’ taxation (David Eiser describes a rise in SRIT as ‘slightly progressive’), the likely income from each 1p change in taxation, and the unintended consequences of greater higher-rate taxation in Scotland.  Further, since we all know the SNP will win the election, it is relatively hard to take seriously the tax plans of the other parties, including Scottish Labour’s planned 1p rise and the Scottish Conservatives’ unfulfilled hopes to reduce it (alongside its proposal to reintroduce tuition fees). Similarly, gone are the days when the Scottish Greens’ more radical income and land tax plans had any chance of success.

The lack of a settled constitution has also contributed to the lack of a proper debate on the SNP’s record in office – which is weird if you consider that, until recently, the main factor in the SNP’s electoral success in 2007 and 2011 is ‘valence politics’, which describes the tendency for political parties to promise similar things and run campaigns on things like the image of their leader, their vision for the future, and their image of governing competence. The SNP did particularly well to maintain an image of competence in 2011, but it is tempting to think that the popularity of Nicola Sturgeon, and the post-referendum bump for the SNP, has made this less of an issue in 2016. Opposition parties have been trying to maximise concerns about the performance of the NHS and Police Scotland, and the SNP’s failure to reduce the ‘attainment gap’, but there is little evidence to suggest that anything sticks – particularly when crises like the Edinburgh schools closures can generate attention but call into question Labour’s record on capital finance up to 2007.

Some important points are often not talking points …

One issue which could have hurt the SNP is ‘fracking’ because there is some internal division in the SNP about the Scottish Government’s decision to maintain a moratorium rather than complete ban on shale oil and gas development (Scottish Labour now supports a ban). Yet, the moratorium, along with with Sturgeon’s recent description of her position as ‘highly sceptical about fracking’ and the decision of the SNP’s leadership not to debate the issue at its annual conference, has meant that it can remain a non-talking point until after the election.

… but sometimes that’s a good thing

Perhaps the most promising non-talking point was Kezia Dugdale’s decision to ‘share with the world that I’m in love with a woman’, generally receive praise, and establish the Scottish Parliament as the home to an unusually large number of LGB party leaders. There is also some evidence to suggest that gender-based equality of selection is ‘catching on’ again (and reinforced by the high number of women in party leadership roles) after a few false dawns. Although the SNP will dominate party politics for years to come, some issues like ‘microcosmic representation’ are bigger than parties.

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Is politics and policymaking about sharing evidence and facts or telling good stories? Two very silly examples from #SP16

Sometimes, in politics, people know and agree about basic facts. This agreement provides the basis on which they can articulate their values, debate policy choices, and sell their choices to a reasonably well informed public. There are winners and losers from the choices, but at least it is based on a process in which facts or evidence play a major part.

Sometimes, people don’t seem to agree on anything. The extent to which they disagree seems wacky (as in the devil shift). So, there is no factual basis for a debate. Instead, people tell stories to each other and the debate hinges on the extent to which (a) someone tells a persuasive story, and (b) you already agree with its ‘moral’ and/ or the person telling you the story.*

Silly example one: the Scottish rate of income tax (SRIT)

The SRIT is a great example because it shows you that people can’t even agree on how to describe the arithmetic underpinning policy choices. My favourite example is here, on how to describe % increases on percentages:

cashley blair m srit

This problem amplifies the more important problem: the income tax is toxic, few politicians want to touch it, and they would rather show you the dire effects of other people using it. Currently, the best way to do this is to worry about the effect of any tax rise on the pay of nurses (almost always the heroes of the NHS and most-uncalled-for victims of policy change). So, if you combine the arithmetic debate with the focus on nurses, you get this:

cashley et al nurses srit

What you make of it will, I think, depend largely on who you trust, such as Calum C for the SNP/ Yes versus Blair M for Labour/ No. Then if you want to read more you can, for example, choose to read some Scottish Labour-friendly analysis of its plans to increase the SRIT by 1p while compensating lower earners (a, b), see it as a disaster not criticised enough by the BBC, or take your pick of two stories on the extent to which it did a ‘U-turn’.

This is before we even get to the big debate! What could have been a values-driven discussion about the benefits and costs of raising income tax to fund services, or about who should win and lose from taxation changes, has generally turned into a pedantic and (deliberately?) confusing debate about the meaning of ‘progressive’ taxation (David Eiser describes a rise in SRIT as ‘slightly progressive’), the likely income from each 1p change in taxation, and the unintended consequences of greater higher-rate taxation in Scotland.

So, your choice is to (a) do a lot of reading and critical analysis to get your head around the SRIT, or (b) decide who to trust to tell you what’s what.

Silly example two: who should you give your ‘second vote’ to?

The SNP will gain a majority in the Scottish Parliament despite an electoral system (‘mixed-member proportional’) designed to be far more proportional than the plurality system of Westminster: 56 seats from regional lists, using the d’Hondt divisor, offset some of the distribution of the 73 constituency seats determined by a plurality vote. Yet, they only make it more proportional. The SNP’s 50% share of the vote secured 56 of 59 MPs (95%) in the 2015 UK General election. If, as seems likely from the polls, it can maintain that level of support in constituency votes, it might already secure a majority before the regional votes are counted.

So, if the SNP wins almost all of the constituency seats, the competition for votes has taken on an unusual dimension: all the other parties will be getting all or most of their seats from the regional vote.

This situation has prompted some debate about the extent to which SNP-voters should (a) vote SNP twice (#bothvotessnp) to secure a very small number of extra seats in the regions where they don’t win all constituency contests, or (b) give their ‘second’/regional vote to a Yes-supporting smaller party like the Scottish Greens or RISE.

Here comes the silly bit. When John Curtice sort-of-seemed-not-really to suggest that people should choose option b (see original report by the ERS, described in The Herald) you’d think that he’d put a bag of shit on the SNP’s doorstep and the ERS had set fire to it and rung the doorbell.

So, unless you are willing to read about the kind of sophisticated calculations discussed in the ERS report, your next choice is to listen to a story about (a) people out to get the heroic SNP by duping voters into increasing the chances of more Union-loving MSPs (e.g. Labour or Conservative) getting in through the back door, or (b) those plucky heroes, such as the Greens or RISE, standing up to the villainous SNP.

In both cases, it is inevitable that many people will base their decisions on such stories, which is why they look so silly but matter so much.

 

*For the most part, the cause is the ‘complexity’ of the world and our need to adapt to it by ignoring most of it. To do so, we (just like policymakers) use major cognitive short cuts – including our emotional, gut, and habitual responses – to turn too-much information into a manageable amount. This process helps make us susceptible to ‘framing’ when people present that information to us in a particular way.

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The big accountability lie: in Scottish Parliament elections you have to pretend that you’ll succeed (part 2)

In part 1 of this amazing drama I restricted the discussion of ‘governance’ to Scotland. What happens when you expand it to include ‘multi-level governance’ in the UK and EU? It makes it even more difficult to talk about central government control and holding the Scottish Government to account, in a meaningful way, since it shares policymaking responsibility with UK and EU-level authorities.

The concept of MLG helps us understand the wider context of Scottish policymaking. In part 1 we discussed the idea of governance as ‘horizontal’ power diffusion by identifying, for example, the role of interest groups in territorial policy communities, and one aspect of ‘vertical’ diffusion by identifying the extent to which the Scottish Government shares power with local public bodies (see also the so-called ‘Scottish approach to policymaking’).

So, imagine MLG as the formation of policy networks that span more than one level of government, and the ‘emergence’ of policies and practices from multi-level activity. It is important to identify which actors are responsible for those outcomes in theory, to inform discussions of accountability, but difficult to know who to blame in practice when there are blurry boundaries between the actors who make or influence policy. This problem is exacerbated, not solved, by further constitutional change, which is built on a level of shared responsibility, between the UK and Scottish Government, not envisaged in the original devolution ‘settlement’.

Multi-level policymaking: the division of responsibilities

To get a flavour of these overlaps, let’s start with the original settlement, set out in the Scotland Act 1998, which stated which policy areas would remain reserved to the UK Government. Reserved areas are in the left hand column, which allows us to work out the main responsibilities of the Scottish Government. In the middle are some examples of UK/ Scotland overlaps, followed by examples of policy issues that are devolved and ‘Europeanised’.

table 10.1

If we simply compare the left/ right columns, the divisions seem fairly clear. Indeed, compared to many other systems – in which, for example, national and regional governments might share control over healthcare or education – they are.

The ‘Europeanisation’ of policy

Yet, many policy areas were becoming controlled or influenced increasingly by the European Union as they were being devolved. Further, the UK Government is the Member State, with three main implications:

  1. It is responsible for the implementation of EU directives across the UK, which gives it a monitoring role on Scottish policy in devolved areas.
  2. It tends to treat the EU as an extension of foreign affairs/ international relations – a reserved issue – rather than a collection of policy areas which can be reserved or devolved.
  3. It is difficult to consider constitutional change without taking into account key EU rules, in areas such as corporation tax and renewable energy obligations.

Outside of the obvious areas, such as EU rules on free trade and the free movement of people, the most Europeanised and devolved areas tend to be in:

  • Agriculture and fishing. The Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy are negotiated and set at the EU level, often with minimal Scottish Government involvement but with some discretion during implementation.
  • Environmental regulation. Similarly, Scotland’s environmental policies begin with the need to be consistent with EU rules in areas such as water quality and environmental protection.

Then, there is a miscellany of EU advice and regulations with the potential to have a major impact on otherwise devolved policies. For example, the ‘working time directive’ has an impact on doctors’ working conditions, while the habitat directive impacts on planning processes. This is on top of a more general sense that EU rules on trade and the free movement of people have a major impact on any policy area.

The blurry boundaries between reserved and devolved issues

There are many examples of areas in which at least two levels of government are involved. In some cases, this potential for multi-level involvement produced uncertainty about how to act:

  • In the very early years, Scottish ministers expressed uncertainty about their role in issues such as industrial policy and a register of sex offenders.
  • The ‘smoking ban’ raised interesting issues about the ‘purpose test’ to determine who is primarily responsible for key policies. It is part of a larger set of tobacco control policy instruments produced by Scottish, UK, and EU policymakers.
  • Scottish Parliament legislation to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol has been delayed by court action (it is currently being considered by the ECJ).

In some cases, there were tensions about the overlaps of responsibilities:

  • The Scottish Government’s policy on ‘free personal care’ for older people reduced many people’s entitlement to UK government social security payments. It faced similar issues when proposing a local income tax.
  • The UK’s Home Office policy on ‘dawn raids’ on unsuccessful asylum seekers was carried out in Scotland by a devolved police force.

In others, an overlap of responsibilities seems inevitable, since many policy areas are ‘cross-cutting’; they involve many policy instruments and government departments:

  • Fuel and child poverty are addressed with a mix of taxes, benefits, and public services.
  • Cross-cutting UK initiatives – such as the New Deal and Sure Start – require a degree of cooperation with devolved public services.
  • The Scottish Government’s ‘Fresh Talent’ initiative required Home Office approval.

In other words, overlaps are inevitable when any government tries to combine devolved discretion with national control.

So what?

Although this has been a far more boring post, the issues of accountability strategies are a bit more interesting. The debate, in this case, relates to the extent to which:

  • the SNP in government can blame the messy constitution settlement for its limited room for manoeuvre – an argument that it uses, but sparingly, because it also needs to maintain an image of governing competence (which is not supported well by the continuous claim of powerlessness)
  • the opposition parties can criticise this focus, and make the ‘use the powers you have before you ask for more’ argument, but sparingly, because they must know that the Scottish system is a big mess.

This should at least make it more bearable to watch an election debate (perhaps behind a cushion) because very little of this comes up but you know it’s there. Imagine a warring family that only argues about who should take the bins out or pick up their socks when you know what’s really going on under the surface.

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The big accountability lie: in Scottish Parliament elections you have to pretend that you’ll succeed (part 1)

The Scottish Conservatives took some grief for campaigning to become the opposition party in Holyrood. We all know they won’t come close to winning, but many people would like them to go through the ridiculous charade of pretending to try. Yet, this is only the second most ridiculous pretence in Scottish politics. The first is that the governing party is in control of Scottish government and can therefore be held to account in a meaningful way in Holyrood elections. While one problem will go away next month, the other is a fundamental flaw in our political system that will rip us apart at the seams.

For the people who read beyond the first paragraph, let me lay this out in a less dramatic way by highlighting the gulf between two ways of thinking about Scottish government.

  1. The language of Scottish elections.

The language of elections is one of ambition, high stakes competition, central government control, and accountability through elections:

  • Parties compete to tell you the tantalizing transformations they can deliver with Scottish Government powers.
  • The elections are high stakes because much power is held in Scottish central government.
  • If there is high central control, with major ‘levers’ of policy change, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame. Education doing well? Praise the SNP. NHS in a slump? Blame the SNP. Police Scotland having a nightmare? Blame the SNP. Wee Jimmy tripped and fell over a wonky slab in Largs? Blame the SNP.

So, the underlying message of Scottish Parliament elections is: let’s blame or praise the central government because it is in control and has the levers to make things happen. It’s much the same, only more so, in Westminster elections.

  1. The language of governance and policy studies

Most policy studies suggest that central government can achieve far less than you’d care to think. We use many phrases to highlight the limits to central control and the pragmatic ways in which the centre shares policymaking responsibility with other actors such as local public bodies and ‘stakeholders’. Key concepts include:

  • Policy communities. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy.
  • Governance (not government). There is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, we often think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government.
  • Complexity, or complex government. In complex policymaking systems, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them. Consequently, there is a large literature which tries to produce pragmatic responses to deal with the limits to central government control.

The language of accountability does not mix well with the language of complexity

I want you to imagine that you’ve put new denim jeans in with your whites wash: one part of the wash has really messed up the other. Now, I want you to think of this as a clever analogy: the language of elections is the denim and it’s really messing up your governance whites.

There are good reasons for central governments to share power and responsibility with other actors, including:

  • civil servants have the capacity, knowledge, and networks to research and make detailed policies;
  • many public bodies like ‘quangos’ need to be at ‘arm’s length’ from ministers to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of their public;
  • local governments have their own mandates, often possess a keener sense of the needs of local communities, and can work in partnership with local stakeholders and public bodies to produce long term strategies for their areas
  • stakeholders provide knowledge and advice on how to deliver policies in specialised areas
  • service users often have profound insights on the public services they receive

So, alongside fighting elections, the Scottish Government tries to produce pragmatic ways to share policymaking responsibility and encourage new mechanisms of accountability: institutional, local, community, service user.

The only problem is this: almost no one buys these forms of accountability, partly because it looks like the central government is trying to shirk responsibility for its actions. Come election time, you have to pretend that you are in charge of all of it. So, it’s difficult to argue during the rest of the time – for example, when ‘being held to account’ by the Scottish Parliament, or criticised in the media – that things are really not your fault.

The worst of it comes when governments try to adapt to both of those things, producing highly contradictory strategies:

  • On the one hand, they pursue thinks like ‘prevention’ strategies which encourage relatively hands-off policymaking for the long term in cooperation with local bodies.
  • On the other, they make election promises – e.g. on the numbers of police officers, teachers, and nurses they’ll employ – and maintain performance management systems to show that they are in charge and making some progress. These actions to achieve short term electoral success can really mess up the long term strategies.

So what?

The upshot is this: we could use our knowledge of this contradiction in language to get beyond simplistic debates in which the elected central government gets all the praise or blame for outcomes in devolved areas in Scotland. It might help produce more honest and sensible policymaking. However, can you imagine any big party ever willing to try? When the Scottish Conservatives get this much shit for admitting they won’t win office, can you imagine a larger party admitting that it won’t achieve that much in office because it’s one part of a complex system?

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Research design: Case studies and comparative research

My aim is to tell you about the use and value of comparative research by combining (a) a summary of your POLU9RM course reading, and (b) some examples from my research. Of course, I wouldn’t normally blow my own trumpet, but Dr Margulis insisted that I do so. Here is the podcast (25 minutes) which you can download or stream:

The reading for this session is Halperin and Heath’s chapter 9, which makes the following initial points about comparative research:

  • ‘Comparative’ describes methods to identify and explain differences/ similarities between cases.
  • These cases are often – but need not be – countries (for example, comparisons over time, or by policy area, can be just as illuminating).
  • There are three main approaches: large-N (many cases), small-N (several cases), and single-N (or ‘case studies’).
  • Comparison is not an end in itself. Rather, we need to justify, or clarify the value of, each comparison. This involves identifying a clear theoretical reason for a particular comparison (and, as in all studies, producing a clear research question that can be answered).
  • It helps us avoid what Rose calls ‘false uniqueness’ (assuming rather than demonstrating that a case is exceptional) and ‘false universalism’ (assuming that a finding from one time/ place applies to all times or places).
  • Comparative methods are most frequently used to determine the extent to which a theory generated from one set of cases applies to other cases.

Key issues when you apply theories to new cases

There are two interesting implications of the final bullet point.

First, note the tendency of a small number of countries to dominate academic publication. For example, a lot of the policy theories to which I refer in this ‘1000 words’ series derive from studies of the US. With many theories, you can see interesting developments when scholars apply them outside of the US:

  • The ‘universal’ v ‘territorial’ issue. In my article with Michael Jones (summarised here) on Kingdon’s ‘multiple streams analysis’ we note that it began as a study of health/ transport policy in the US in the 1980s. It then morphed into a theory applied to many regions at many times. A large part of its success comes from the abstract nature of its key concepts, which can be applied at any place and time: for example, a lot of its discussion of agenda setting relates to ‘bounded rationality’ which applies to all people. Yet, there are also ‘territorial’ issues which apply to particular regions or types of government. For example, some studies adapt MSA’s concepts to explain the influence of supranational authorities or to describe the differences between EU and US policymaking.
  • The ‘beyond the West’ issue. In one interesting application of MSA to China, Zhu argues that a key concept is not applicable: policy change in the US requires policy solutions to be technically feasible; in China, they only prompt change if ‘infeasible’. The example highlights the limits to the explanatory power of theories derived from studies of a small number of ‘Western’ countries (I know this description is loaded – what other terms could we use to describe countries like the US and UK?). In such cases, scholars are now exploring the implications in some depth: how well do these policy theories travel?

Second, consider the extent to which we are accumulating knowledge when applying the same theory to many cases. There are now some major reviews or debates of key policy theories, in which the authors highlight the difficulties of systematic research to produce a large number of comparable case studies:

For me, the important common factor in all of these reviews is that many scholars pay insufficient attention to the theory when applying its insights to new cases. Consequently, when you try to review the body of work, you find it difficult to generate an overall sense of developments by comparing many case studies. So, in my humble opinion, we’d be a lot better off if people did a proper review of the literature – and made sure that their concepts were clear and able to be ‘operationalised’ – before jumping into case study analysis. I wrote these blog posts for established scholars and new PhD students, but the argument should also apply to you as an undergraduate: get the basics right (which includes understanding the theory you are applying) to get the comparative research right. This is just as important as your case selection.

From case study to large-N research: choosing between depth and breadth?

Case studies. It is in this context that we might understand Halperin and Heath’s point that case study research (single-N) is comparative. You might be going into much depth to identify key aspects of a single case, but also considering the extent to which it compares meaningfully with other case studies using the same theory. All that we require in such examples is that you justify your case selection. In some examples, you are trying to see if a theory drawn from one country applies to another. Or, you might be interested in how far theories travel, or how applicable they are to cases which seem unusual or ‘deviant’. In some examples, we seek the ‘crucial case study’ that is central to the ‘confirmation or disconfirmation of a theory’ (p207), but don’t make the mistake of concluding that you need a new theory because the old one can only explain so much. Further, although single case studies should not be dismissed, you can only conclude so much from them. So, be careful to spell out and justify any conclusions that you find to be ‘generalisable’ to other cases.

Example 1. In my research, I often use US-origin theories to help explain policymaking by the UK and devolved governments. For example, I used the same approach as Kingdon (documentary analysis and semi-structured interviews) to identify, in great detail, the circumstances under which 4 governments in the UK introduced the same ban on smoking in public places (the take home message: there was more to it than you might think!).

Small-N studies. The systematic comparison of several cases allows you to extend analysis often without compromising on depth. However, there is great potential to bias your outcomes by cherry-picking cases to suit particular theories. So, we look for ways to justify case selection. Halperin and Heath go to some length to identify the problems of ‘selection on the dependent variable’, which can be summed up as: don’t compare cases just because they seem to have the same outcome in common (focus instead on what causes such outcomes). Two well-established approaches are ‘most similar systems design’ (MSSD) and ‘most different systems design’ (MDSD) (p209). With MSSD, you choose cases which share key explanatory factors/ characteristics (e.g. they have the same socio-economic/ political context) so that you can track the effects of one or more difference (perhaps in the spirit of a randomised control trial, but without the substance). With MDSD you choose cases which do not share characteristics so that you can track the effect of a key similarity.

Aside from the problems of case study selection bias, it’s worth noting how difficult it is to produce a clear MSSD or MDSD research design, since you are making value judgements about which shared/ not shared characteristics are crucial (see their discussion of necessary/ sufficient factors).

Example 2. Take the example of a study I did with Karin Ingold and Manuel Fischer recently, comparing ‘fracking’ policy and policymaking in the UK and Switzerland.  We use the same theory (the ACF) and same method (documentary analysis and a survey of key actors) in both countries. We used a survey to allow us to quantify key relationships between actors: to what extent do they share the same beliefs with other actors, and how likely are they to share information frequently with their allies and competitors?

We describe the research design as MDSD because their political systems represent two contrasting political system archetypes – the ‘majoritarian’ UK and ‘consensus’ Switzerland – which Lijphart describes as key factors in their contrasting policymaking processes. Yet, central to our argument is that there are policymaking processes common to policy subsystems despite their system differences. In effect, we try to measure the effect of political system design on subsystem dynamics and find a subtle but important impact.

We also find that, although these differences exist, their policy outcomes are remarkably similar. So, ‘most different’ systems often produce very similar policymaking processes and policy outcomes. Then, we note that if we had our time again we would have extended the analysis to subnational governments in the UK. The ‘most different’ design prompted us to focus on the UK central government and Swiss Cantons (the alleged locus of power in both cases), but maybe we could have started from an assumption that they are not as different as they look. Have a look and you can see the dilemmas that still play out in (what I think is) a well-designed study.

Example 3. I face the same difficulties when comparing policy and policymaking by the UK and Scottish Governments. In some respects, they are ‘most different’: ‘new Scottish politics’ was designed to contrast with ‘old Westminster’ (particularly when it came to elections; the Scottish Parliament is also unicameral). In others, they are similar: the ‘architects of devolution’ introduced a system that seems to be of the Westminster family (particularly the executive-legislative relationships). Further, Scotland remains part of the UK, and the UK Government retains responsibility for many policies affecting Scotland. Overall, it is difficult to say for sure how similar/ different are their systems (which I discuss in a series of lectures). So, the comparison is fraught with difficulty. In such examples, they key solution is to ‘show your working’: describe these problems and state how you work within them (for example, in my case, I try to examine the extent to which policymaking reflects ‘territorial’ context or ‘universal’ drivers’, partly by interviewing policymakers in each government).

Large-N (quantitative) studies.  Halperin and Heath lay out some of the potential benefits of large-N research. For example, it is easier to come to general conclusions about many countries by studying many countries (rather than trying to generalise from a few, which might not be representative). They also highlight the pitfalls, including the problem of meaning: when you ‘operationalise’ a concept such as democracy or populism, can you provide a simple enough definition to allow you to give each system a number (to denote democratic/ undemocratic or X% democratic) that means the same thing in each case? To this problem, I would add the general issue of breadth and depth. With large-N studies you can examine the effects of a small number of variables, to explain a small part of the politics of many systems. With small-N you can study a large number of variables in a few systems. The classic trade-off is between breadth and depth. Of course, if you are doing an undergraduate dissertation the big Q is: what can you reasonably be expected to do? Maybe your highest aim should be to make sense of the studies which already exist.

 

 

 

 

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Westminster is more powerful than you think, but only if you dismiss its importance

Cowley tweet 4.1.15

When studying the role of parliament in the UK, it is common to argue that it is more powerful than you think. If the dominant narrative is that parliaments are peripheral to the policy process, then let’s show you what is wrong with that narrative.

I’ve done it myself several times (e.g. this article and this book pp104-7), partly because it’s a good hook for publication (and partly because David Judge was my PhD supervisor*). However, when I discuss these issues with students, I tend to conclude that an influence score of more-than-zero is still a low score. It’s a bit like me telling people: ‘I look pasty, but I can run faster than you think’.

I say this after reading Russell, Gover, and Wollter’s (2015) excellent empirical analysis of Westminster’s influence over the past decade. It is ‘more influential than is widely recognised’, but what does that really mean? Let’s break down (what I take to be) the article’s 3 key points:

  1. The non-influential argument is untested empirically. This is a good way to justify Russell et al’s empirical work, but I think it’s a bit misleading. I think there is a lot of empirical work on policymaking out there which fails to pick up on any Westminster influence whatsoever. For example, in a lot of my interview research, it has not occurred to participants (including interest groups and civil servants) to mention the role of Westminster unprompted because it is so far down the list of relevant factors.
  2. The vagaries of the bill process give a misleading picture of low MP influence. When we study the legislative amendment process we find that the majority of successful government amendments are innocuous (exaggerating its success) and many amendments by MPs are designed to prompt debate, not succeed (exaggerating their failure). True. This is partly because, by the time a bill gets to Parliament, it is already a draft Act. The government has little interest in changing something already negotiated in detail with interested groups, and MPs are often looking to make points or seek clarity. Yet, for me, this clarification does little to accentuate parliamentary influence. Rather, it warns against the conclusion of non-influence using misleading measures (not the same thing as demonstrating influence).
  3. To gauge parliamentary influence you need measures which take ‘anticipated reactions’ into account. The government’s bill teams take great care to anticipate parliamentary reaction to bills, and produce draft legislation accordingly. Further, much government legislation is prompted by MPs (via, for example, committee reports and MP bills). Both of these points are important, but they remain partial because government actions are prompted by 101 things. We know that ministers and civil servants take Parliament into account in many cases, but in how many cases can we say that parliamentary influence is decisive or near the top of the list of most important factors? This question is explored in more depth in Russell and Cowley’s excellent article,  but still to challenge the idea that Parliament is completely unimportant. We are still left with the argument: ‘if you think Westminster’s is really unimportant, Westminster is more powerful than you think’.

Where is the public policy analysis?

Russell and Cowley aim to ‘adopt a public policy lens, asking which parliamentary actors and processes exert influence, and at what policy stage(s)’. Yet, they cite almost none of the contemporary public policy literature (not even Jordan/ Richardson’s books after 1979, one of which engages with post-1979 developments).

For me, the value that you’d expect public policy analysis to add relates to its range of perspectives. A focus on networks was often to highlight the limits to ministerial as well as parliamentary power, since the state is so large that elites have to delegate most policymaking to other people, and can only keep track of a small proportion of government activity. Further, a focus on ‘street level’ actors and organisations further accentuates the sense that government policy is often delivered by routine, with a tendency for ministers and parliamentarians to pay attention to a tiny part of that activity. Perhaps most importantly, the contemporary literature tends to highlight the problems with a focus on stages to describe how policy is made. Or, if you are really keen, there is a discussion by Rod Rhodes and colleagues of the extent to which politicians maintain the fiction of the Westminster model of government, which can affect how they describe the role of Parliament and the importance of traditional forms of accountability.

I think that this kind of discussion informs the empirical analysis: if you ‘zoom in’ to look for evidence of (ministerial or) parliamentary influence you  will find some. However, if you are adopting a ‘public policy lens’, it seems worthwhile to also ‘zoom out’ and consider how this evidence connects to the wider public policy literature. A focus primarily on Richardson/ Jordan as the classic 1979 text, then King/ Crewe 2013 as something more up to date, only seems valuable if one wants to stick it to the older generation without engaging with more thoughtful or empirical analysis.

Where do we go from here?

If you are interested in these arguments, you should follow ‘politicsphd’, who is working in depth on the issues as they relate to the Scottish Parliament’s bill process. He has some points which are directly relevant to Westminster analysis, including:

  • We need more measures of influence. For example, we need to measure the overall effect of amendments rather than rely on counting substantive amendments (e.g. by comparing the bills before and after submission);
  • We need to go beyond vague classifications of legislatures. We should focus more on important variations in parliamentary influence, on a bill-by-bill basis, rather than focusing primarily on an often misleading gauge of overall influence according to some bills which may or may not be representative.

My argument is simpler and based on the application of ‘bounded rationality’ to legislatures such as Westminster:

  1. Actors like MPs and MSPs only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues processed by governments. So, they promote few to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest. They engage in ‘serial processing’: considering one issue at a time.
  2. Elected policymakers partly overcome this problem of serial processing by overseeing ‘parallel processing’ within government. A government breaks down policymaking into a huge number of discrete issues processed in different parts of the organisation. British parliaments tend not to have the resources to perform a similar role or keep up with the policy process in British government.
  3. So, you might expect the parliamentary equivalent of ‘punctuated equilibrium’: a tendency for parliaments to focus intensely on a small number of issues (with the potential for significant influence) at the expense of the vast majority of others.

In other words, think of parliamentary influence in terms of two sides of the same coin: if you identify influence in some areas, recognise the limited influence in most others.

For more of that sort of argument, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.

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*In my first year as a politics undergraduate I learned that Westminster was only important to the tourist trade (my lecturer was Jeremy Richardson). In my 3rd year I learned that Richardson and Jordan were quite wrong (my lecturer was David Judge). In my 4th year I learned that policy networks were at the heart of explanation and that Parliament rarely featured (David Marsh). During my PhD on networks I put in a chapter on Parliament – CHAPTER_3 – to try to please David Judge. I worked briefly for Mark Shephard and we made the ‘more influential than you think’ case for the Scottish Parliament. Then I went full circle by working closely at Aberdeen with Grant Jordan. I now talk a lot about bounded rationality, which is at the heart of my explanation for limited parliamentary influence: MPs/ MSPs don’t have the resources to be particularly influential.

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The final Scottish devolution settlement is rubbish, and unionists should be worried

Imagine academics were more like a caricature of elected politicians: shouting their beliefs from the rooftops, super-selective with their interpretations of fact, unwilling to express uncertainty about anything political if it harmed their case, and willing to make wildly unsubstantiated predictions about the future.

Here is what I think many would make of the Scottish devolution settlement:

  • The new Scotland Bill represents the final devolution settlement.
  • This is the last chance to get devolution right before the next independence referendum.
  • Instead, it is a horrible mess, produced in a hurry and driven more by political negotiation than good sense (which is the usual story).
  • No-one can understand it and it will be almost impossible to hold any single government to account for many decisions (particularly since the Scottish Parliament will diminish even further in importance)
  • The fiscal framework underpinning the new settlement is a shambles and not worthy of support (David Bell and colleagues use the phrase ‘may not be workable’ when the plan contains contradictory principles).
  • The idea of a powerful Scottish Parliament overseeing incredibly high fiscal autonomy is absolute nonsense, because the Scottish Government does not have the ability to decide who should win and lose from the tax and spending regime (Bell and colleagues say ‘these taxes do not give the Scottish Government a great deal of flexibility in reality’).
  • Politicians would rather discuss their back of the envelope plans in private because they know that they would not stand up to scrutiny if they had to explain them to the general public (Nicola McEwen uses the phrase ‘After the democratic engagement of the referendum campaign, it is disappointing that debates on the Scotland Bill have largely excluded the public’).

If so, I pity the people charged with running the next No campaign, because they will be unable to say that (a) the Scottish devolution settlement is good, or (b) there will be a further settlement if you vote No (nor will they be able to make a convincing case based on British values).  Instead, what they can say is ‘we delivered on our promise for more devolution’ and, perhaps, ‘use the powers you have before you ask for more’.

The general problem with the latter argument is that it currently boils down to this kind of specific argument: if you don’t like UK Conservative cuts to benefits and tax credits, you can now raise taxes to offset them (then, presumably, the plan is to say ‘you didn’t raise taxes, so you are not as social democratic as you claim’).

What I suspect many people will hear is this: we agree that the Tory cuts are rubbish, and you have to pay more money to get back to where you started. In that context, the SNP still has the choice of saying that its hands are tied by the Tories or that it can only do so much to offset the damage. We are not yet, and perhaps never will be, at the stage where people will hold an SNP-led Scottish Government primarily accountable for the taxing and funding decisions that affect people in Scotland. Instead, for most of the run up to the next referendum, the Scottish Government (and Westminster contingent for Scotland) will be led by people, like Sturgeon and Swinney, who will remain more popular and seem more sincere and trustworthy than their UK counterparts.

Of course, the case can be made for problems with the next Yes campaign, including the argument that the SNP’s economic case is redundant and the campaign has to rely on more than emotion. The alternative argument is that the SNP has been doing very well with such limited strategies, and the final devolution settlement has just strengthened its hand further.

But academics don’t speak like that, so I’ll conclude by saying: (a) more research is required, and (b) please see the Special issue of Political Quarterly on this topic (introduced here).

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Looking ahead: will policy and policymaking change with constitutional change? #POLU9SP

This is the final lecture, and it should take us full circle to the first lecture which began with this statement: ‘A key part of this course is to examine critically the idea that political practices in Scotland are distinctively Scottish’. I provide a brief summary below, but most of the information is in this podcast, which you can download (right click on mp3 or mp4a) or stream here:

Devolution represents a major change in Scottish politics, but it did not produce major change in all aspects of Scottish politics. Instead, some expectations came to fruition while others remain unfulfilled.

Similarly, further devolution or Scottish independence may produce a similar sense of major change in politics and society, but we should not assume that it would produce major change in policy and policymaking.

In that context, let’s revisit the key themes/ questions of the course, ask what has changed in Scottish politics, and use our answer to think about any likely changes in the future:

  1. What aspects of Scottish politics and policymaking are ‘territorial’ and ‘universal’?
  2. Did devolution produce major political reforms and new forms of democracy?
  3. What aspects of the ‘Scottish policy style’ and ‘Scottish approach to policymaking’ are clearly distinctive?
  4. Can you meaningfully describe ‘Scottish politics’ when so much policymaking is multi-level?
  5. Did devolution prompt major policy change and/ or policy divergence between the Scottish and UK governments?

It is in this context that we can produce an informed discussion of the likely effects of major constitutional change in the future. For example, would Scottish independence:

  1. Change the way we study Scottish policymaking?
  2. Produce further political reform and democratic practices?
  3. Change the Scottish policy style?
  4. Have an effect on the multi-level nature of policymaking?
  5. Produce further policy change and/ or divergence?

In many, if not most cases, I think the answer is ‘no’.

 

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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).

 

 

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Case studies: healthcare, public health, mental health #POLU9SP

This is the second 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.

Most aspects of health policy have been devolved since 1999, and many were devolved before 1999, so we can generate a relatively long term picture of policy change/ divergence in three key areas: healthcare, mental health, and public health. We can then revisit the idea of prevention and inequalities raised in the first lecture.

Healthcare

The NHS has always been a little bit different in Scotland, which enjoyed administrative devolution – through the Scottish Office (a UK Government Department) – before 1999 and maintained its own links with professional groups.

Scotland has traditionally trained a disproportionate number of UK doctors and maintained an unusually high presence of Royal Colleges. This greater medical presence boosted the Scottish Office’s policymaking image as ‘professionalised’, or more likely to pursue policies favoured by the medical profession than the UK’s Department of Health. For example, it appeared to be less supportive of reforms based on the ‘marketisation’ of the NHS.

Devolution turbo boosted this sense of Scottish policy difference (see the Greer and Jarman discussion).

For example, while the UK Labour Government furthered the ‘internal market’ established by its Conservative predecessors, the Labour-led Scottish Government seemed to dismantle it (for example, there are no Foundation hospitals). It also bought (and effectively renationalised) a private hospital, which had a symbolic importance way above its practical effect.

Since 2007, the SNP-led Scottish Government – often supported publicly by UK-wide groups such as the British Medical Association (and nursing and allied health professions) – has gone big on this difference between Scottish and UK Government policies, criticising the marketization of the NHS in England and expressing, at every opportunity, the desire to maintain the sort of NHS portrayed by Danny Boyle at the Olympics opening ceremony.

This broad approach is generally supported, at least implicitly, by the important political parties in Scotland (the SNP is competing with a centre-left Labour Party and the Conservatives are less important). It is also supported by a medical profession and a public that, in practice, tends to be more committed to the NHS (in other words, opinion polls may not always show a stark difference in attitudes, but there is not the same fear in Scotland, as in the South-East of England, that doctors and patients might defect to the private sector if the NHS is not up to scratch).

Public health

Scotland won the race to ban smoking in public places and is currently trying to introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol. It has also placed particular emphasis on the wider determinants of health and made the right noises about the balance between public health and acute care. However, there are also major similarities in Scottish and UK Government approaches. For example, the UK tops the European league table on comprehensive tobacco control (and England/ Wales beat Scotland to ban smoking in cars with children).

Mental health

To some extent, early Scottish Governments developed an international reputation for innovation in some areas relating to wellbeing. It also reformed mental health and capacity legislation in a relatively quick and smooth way – at least compared to the UK Labour Government, which had a major stand-off with virtually all mental health advocacy groups on psychiatric-based reforms. Part of the difference relates to the size of Scotland and its government’s responsibilities which can produce a distinctive policy style; it often has the ability to coordinate cross-cutting policy, in consultation with stakeholders, in a more personal way. However, this is a field in which there tend to be often-similar policies beyond the Sun-style headlines.

The bigger picture of continuity: a tax funded service

These Scottish-UK differences should be seen in the context of a shared history and some major similarities. Both NHS systems are primarily tax-funded and free at the point of use, with the exception of some charges in England (which should not be exaggerated – for example, 89% of prescriptions in England are tax-funded). Both governments have sought to assure the public in similar ways by, for example, maintaining high profile targets on waiting times. Both systems face similar organisational pressures, such as the balance between a public demand for local hospitals and medical demand for centralised services. Both governments face similar demographic changes which put pressure on services. Both have similarly healthy (or unhealthy) populations.

The bigger picture of prevention and health inequality

Although the Scottish Government pursues an agenda on prevention to reduce service demand and health inequalities, many other policies based on the idea of universal provision have the potential to exacerbate inequalities.

For example, a real rise in spending (cash spending adjusted with the GDP deflator) on health policy of 68% from 2000-11 did not have a major effect on health inequalities (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 229). Instead, Scottish Governments tended to use the money in areas such as acute care to, for example, maintain high profile waiting list (non-emergency operations) and waiting times (A&E) targets which did not have a health inequalities component (Cairney, 2011: 177-9). It has also phased out several charges, such on prescriptions and eye tests, which increase spending without decreasing inequalities (particularly since the lowest paid already qualified for exemptions for charges).

It has pursued strongly a public health strategy geared, in part, towards reducing health inequalities, but with the same tendency as in the UK for healthcare to come first. This process includes interesting overlaps in aims and outcomes, such as in tobacco control where smoking is addressed strongly partly because it represents the single biggest element of health inequalities, but most initiatives do not necessarily reduce inequalities in smoking.

Further Reading

I discuss these issues in more depth in Scottish Politics and The Scottish Political System Since Devolution. See also this draft chapter on prevention and health policy by the Scottish and UK Governments

 

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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?

 

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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.

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