Gaze into the triangle of failure

by | 9 Jun 2023

Why does public policy in Scotland keep repeating the same major errors over and over? It is because a culture of back-watching has removed any incentive to learn and avoid more errors in the future.

First published by Common Weal

Take a look at a little ‘triangle’ of stories in this week’s Scottish newspapers. At first glance they might not seem connected, but they are. They are because there are things about government in Scotland that don’t make proper sense until you connect them.

The first story is the heroic work by Conor Matchett at the Scotsman who has finally prised a list of registered interests of senior civil servants out of the hands of the Scottish Government (which spent two year trying to block this).

And there are quite a lot of interests. Much of it is in shareholdings in corporations which could be affected by public decisions, some of it is pretty harmless public-good roles they engage in, a generous sprinkling are landlords, rather too many of them seem to have second jobs (the details of which remain redacted), a number are members of the right-wing lobbying organisation the Institute of Directors.

Tracing the extent to which these interests clash with the immediate work of the civil servants concerned requires more time input than I have. But the point isn’t that there is a smoking gun in these revelations, it’s that this is all treated as ‘normal’.

And that is only the conflicts that occur with career civil servants, not those who are brought in on secondment (very often from corporations with vested interests in the policy concerned) or in agencies and quangos. Nor does it include other conflicting interests around what civil servants do after they leave the civil service.

(I was talking to a senior civil servant last week who laughed at me when I said ‘and when person X retired at 65…’, replying ‘oh, civil servants don’t work to 65’. Senior civil servants all take early retirement and many go on to monetise their knowledge in the private sector when they do.)

The second story is about two schools in Edinburgh which are partially closed because, despite being new schools, they have been found to have been built with substandard concrete. Common Weal is part of the Scotland Against Public Private Partnerships coalition and so we collect examples of major failures in public infrastructure which simply should never happen.

In the last couple of weeks along we’ve had these two schools, disasters in a major hospital ventilation system and a new school being built which was, ‘by mistake’, far too small. You probably can’t keep up with the ‘rate of fail’ in Scottish public infrastructure-building. These failures are routine here, but not in other countries.

The third story is about the imminent arrival of the outcome of an inquiry into the Edinburgh trams fiasco, an inquiry for which the word ‘imminent’ seems to have been strange and alien over the course of the two hundred and forty seven years it has been running. (Seriously, even the Jarndyces would consider this inquiry sluggish.)

The most relevant of these stories is that of the leader of Edinburgh City Council telling us that the inquiry is irrelevant now because it’s all in the past. If he was shouting ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain‘ it couldn’t be clearer how little he wants you to look at this report.

Everyone involved knows that if anything goes wrong, a wall of obfuscation and trickery will be put in place to make sure that no-one who was responsible is affected

And that is Scotland’s ‘triangle of failure’. This is how it works. First, everyone involved in the system does well out of the system. They are very well remunerated and have open to them many great opportunities for increasing their wealth, now or in the future. This system is working gangbusters for them.

But the system keeps failing, and it is generally the politicians who answer for failure, not the system’s bureaucrats. So the bureaucrats have a strong incentive to protect the politicians, as we can see from the regularity with which Public Health Scotland had to keep ‘clarifying’ the various bits of data it was issuing in pursuit of the claim that deaths in care homes during Covid weren’t down to the decisions of the government.

And is there a quid pro quo? Sure there is. When it goes wrong, the politicians have a range of tricks and techniques to make sure no-one (including officials) pays a price. A favourite is a public inquiry, a process so laborious and so grindingly slow that by the time it reports no-one cares any more and half of the main players have moved on.

This of course creates a giant moral hazard. Everyone involved knows that if anything goes wrong, a wall of obfuscation and trickery will be put in place to make sure that no-one who was responsible is affected. So why learn lessons?

In fact if you look back now, one of the dominant features of devolution has been the failure to build public infrastructure competently. That’s how devolution started, a 10-fold cost overrun in building the parliament building itself. The legacy has been brand new sports centres that never opened, schools whose walls fall down and hospitals that kill children.

But the company which built the unusable sports centre and refused to participate into the inquiry over what happened (Keir Construction) then got the contract to rebuild the Glasgow School of Art, which burned down (again) seemingly because a sprinkler system that was meant to be fitted wasn’t.

Oxgangs primary (the PFI school where the wall fell down) appointed an architect who makes a substantial part of his income from PFI schemes to carry out an inquiry which was damning but gave the PFI element of the scheme the all clear. No officials resigned and the company which was criticised continues to win government contracts.

The cover-ups over the Death Start (no-one in the NHS calls it the ‘Queen Elizabeth’) continue. This week we have the rather shocking news that the Health Board which oversees the hospital hired private investigators to spy on the widow of one of their victims.

And just in case you’re wondering, 23 years on, absolutely everyone involved in the Holyrood Parliament debacle has progressed rapidly in their careers, despite the litany of errors discovered by Lord Frazer in his inquiry.

No-one ever fails in government in Scotland. It’s like gravity doesn’t work – if you trip over you fall upwards. Built a dreadful school where we needed to hold an inquiry it was so bad? Cool, come and build another. In fact here’s a contract for 17 schools.

You’d think someone, somewhere would be looking at this legacy and saying ‘hold on, we’ve got an agency that is in charge of public infrastructure and it seems continually to oversee disasters so perhaps we should review it’. On the contrary, the Scottish Futures Trust (‘the PFI people’) never, ever pay a price. No-one does.

Everyone deserves a second chance – but it is a second chance, not a permanently uninterrupted first chance

Well, you do. You pay a price. You have a worse hospital, a worse school and a worse community centre – and anyone who might be in any way responsible will not only suffer no consequence, they will be facilitated in keeping going exactly like they were.

The Auditor General can’t fight this fight alone (though good grief he’s giving it his best shot). And this is most certainly not just public infrastructure. This week it’s the collapse of a Deposit Return Scheme, devised by a network of agencies which created a privatised company paying extremely generous wages overseen by a politician who barely anyone has ever voted for and between the lot of them they couldn’t make it legal before imposing major costs on businesses.

Want to take bets on whether anyone will pay a price for this? Once again, those crying foul at the UK Government are barking up the wrong tree. It is not the UK Government’s job to facilitate the Holyrood administration, it is the Scottish Government’s job to make sure it gets the legal permissions in place before it builds its private recycling empire.

Common Weal has a simple and elegant solution to this. The politicians and the civil servants need to know they’re not immune, that their failures are not theirs to hide, that inquiries are not tools they use to cover things up. Take the whole process out their hands. Create a permanent Citizens’ Assembly made up of ordinary people selected at random and put the power of accountability in their hands and not in the hands of those who are culpable.

And not everyone in the public sector makes these mistakes. There are more enlightened local authorities who eschew the Scottish standard model of infrastructure procurement and do it their own way. They get much better results. The anti-PPP campaign (for which we have full all-party support) proposes that we invert the system, create a centre of excellence in public infrastructure design, design the best school or hospital for the need and only then start putting finance packages together. The ‘finance first’ model is largely behind these failures.

I amn’t asking for tokenistic recriminations, scapegoating or ad hominem attacks. I frankly hate the pitiless, merciless nature of our society just now and everyone deserves a second chance. But it is a second chance, not a permanently uninterrupted first chance. The people who are making these mistakes must feel the breath of accountability on their necks or they have no incentive to change.

And goodness gracious we need change. It was second jobs, schools and trams this week, but next week you will also be able to find another three stories which form the same triangle. If we don’t escape it, things are just going to get worse.

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