How to save government in Scotland

by | 30 Mar 2022

Poor delivery by government in Scotland is reducing confidence in the public realm. How can that be turned around?

In 2019 I warned that the under-reporting of a long string of Scottish Government errors and failures would not continue indefinitely and that it would have serious consequences when that track record caught up with them. We’re now well past that point and one of the consequences has been a crisis in confidence in government in Scotland generally.

The various failures in public provision and state ownership have, as Iain Macwhirter points out today, done more harm to the left-wing conception of a public realm for public good than any amount of Tory dogma has.

But I’m not writing this from a left-wing perspective. There is an assumption that all of us on the left love a slogan or a long night discussing Marxist theory over drinks but have no interest in governance and delivery. One of my biggest discoveries early in my career was that this isn’t entirely untrue – forces of change are too often worried about the destination and not the route map.

From working in the heart of the seat of government and with the civil service I became very aware that a good idea with bad delivery can be worse than a bad idea delivered well. I am therefore a stickler for good government irrespective of ideology – know why your doing something but make sure you know how to do it well and how to know if it’s going wrong.

It is the forces of progress who are harmed by bad government, not the forces of self-interest or conservatism. Those forces of progress can’t cope with much more bad government in Scotland – but neither can anyone else. If faith in the public realm cannot be restored, almost everyone will suffer. So here are nine tips for how that could be done (there could be so many more…).

1. Have an analysis

You need to have a consistent understanding of the problems you’re trying to solve and why they have arisen in the first place. It doesn’t actually matter too much whether you’re right or wrong because you’re not really fixing the old but building the new. Thatcher was wrong about many of the reasons for economic failure in the 1970s but it led her to a consistent approach to what she wanted to do differently and (from her perspective) it worked very well indeed.

What you can’t do is ‘a bit more of the same’ or ‘the same but with this wee bit added’. Or rather you can, but you will probably fail. To make a serious dent in child poverty you need to have an analysis of why it is happening and how you’re going to change that. You can relieve some of the symptoms with cash payments like you can take away the pain of a broken leg with painkillers, but unless you address the broken bone the problem will very quickly recur.

You’re creating the future, not remedying the past. But if you have no understanding of the past or why it needs changed everything you do will be piecemeal and inconsistent.

2. Get the structure of government right

Good government is about inputs more than outputs. You have settled on your analysis of the problems and established your vision for the alternative. From there the outputs and outcomes are a result not of will power or PR but of what you input into the processes of delivery. That is why government structure should look inwards more than outwards.

You can’t govern effectively if your eye is always on the mirror. You have to trust that if you do things well you’ll get the outcomes you desire and so focus on doing things well. If you focus instead on what the things you’ve already done look like you will chase your tail round and round trying to cover up failures.

There isn’t space here to explain what this looks like in practice, but there are good and bad structures of government and the good ones focus their resources and orientate their personnel round what they can control (their own performance) rather than what they can’t control (what everyone else thinks about their performance).

A good idea with bad delivery can be worse than a bad idea delivered well

3. Have a balance of power

You cannot paint the roses red, it can’t be done – try it. You simply kill the flower and even if you can mock it up for a second or two for a photograph, the petals will fall of very quickly afterwards. Political leaders will always ‘plant the wrong roses’ from time to time, ending up with white where there should be red. They will always be tempted to get the crimson emulsion out – it is basic human nature.

So there has to be someone to say ‘no’, to say ‘stop’. Presidential systems are built (or should be) to compensate for too much power in a single pair of hands. Parliamentary systems are supposed to have that check-and-balance built in. As a leader it may feel like total control is good for you, but it isn’t. In the not-very-long-term autocracies make dreadful mistakes which cannot be covered up.

Having someone saying ‘no’ to you (in private) is your greatest asset as a leader. Chasing those people out of the room will always backfire on you.

4. Decentralise

If you want to hold on, let go. It is that simple. Government is massively too complicated to micromanage so you need to create structures and cultures which make you confident about letting go of control and trusting others to deliver. If you can’t trust others to deliver you have one of two problems – you have the wrong people or you’ve created the wrong culture.

Good government needs to be responsive to reality on the ground and that means being able to gather fast, real-time information on what is going on on the ground; you can’t do that from atop a tower. You need the structures of delivery to be close to the site of delivery. You cannot bend everything, everyone and everywhere to your will.

But above all, the skills and knowledge to do things well are spread and no matter how effective you are you do not have enough internal resource to do everything as well as it can be done. The skills and enthusiasm of others are an asset for you to draw on, not a threat for you to suppress.

5. Reform governance

Tomorrow I will post a piece on governance reform in Scotland but a short version is that current forms of governance are behind many of the problems with government in Scotland. If everything is run by a vanishingly small class of people with minimal scrutiny and no consequences for failure, groupthink is the least of your problems.

Governors who govern ‘for life’ govern for themselves and that’s just human nature. An unwatched child will eat chocolate, a child able to do it will relocate the chocolate for easy access. A quango board member who can make a scandal go away by covering it up probably will. A quango board member who can get away with giving a lucrative contract to a friend probably will. A quango board member who know that keeping quiet about a colleague’s errors increases the chance of their own errors being kept quiet will be more likely to stay quiet.

This is not because they’re bad but because they are human and will attempt to create a culture that suits them like we all do. If they are all from the same background with the same kinds of interests the problem is worse. Diverse governance makes better decisions and the risk of consequences keeps people at the top of their game. It is that simple.

6. Keep the private out of government

I want to be absolutely clear about this point – this is not meant to be anti-private sector. The private sector will not only always work with government but will always deliver a substantial proportion of the ‘good society’ government is trying to create. Civil servants will never grow the food or build the schools.

It is simply the difference between ‘for’ and ‘in’. If private interests can place people in government they will design a system for their own interests. If private interests can reward impartial civil servants with future payments (usually by giving them jobs or board positions upon retirement), the impartiality of civil servants is compromised.

An IT provider will always push a government to over-specify and to rely on their own proprietary software, which is why public IT systems go so terribly wrong so often (good public IT is simple and consistent). If care is delivered by private interests they have the ability to threaten government with service withdrawal in the event of proposed increased regulatory oversight.

I accept that the line between working with the private sector effectively and granting undue access to government will be a constant judgement, but it is massively out of kilter in Scotland just now.

If all of the above is in place and functioning well it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be a good government, but if the above isn’t in place the chances of you being a good government are negligible

7. Build capacity

This is really an extension of the last point but with an additional caveat. The continual outsourcing of decision-making to private companies with clear conflicts of interest is a problem in and of itself but has another major consequence – it causes the internal capacity of the civil service to wither.

A plumber who always pays someone else to do ‘all the stuff with water, copper and plastic’ isn’t a plumber but a middle-man (or woman). A government which doesn’t make its own policy isn’t a government but a PR company. A civil service which gives all the big decisions to someone else to make isn’t a civil service but a kind of temping agency.

You must build up and sustain capacity in government if you want government to be good and that means maintaining a strong policy-making capacity such that outsourcing is unnecessary. Otherwise you end up with junior civil servants thinking cutting three inches of doors is a good idea.

8. Know the difference between deep and broad

Some of you need to go deep, some of you need to stay broad. Mixing these up will cause disasters. The role of a cabinet is to be broad – between them they must have a very clear picture of the sweep of what government is trying to do and what it is actually doing. The role of civil servants is to go deep into what is being done to make sure the details are all given sufficient consideration. The role of Spads is to bridge these two realms.

If a government minister is thinking up all the detail, something is wrong. If they’re micromanaging delivery something is very wrong. If civil servants are being forced to think about appearances all the time rather than focussing on the detail then something is not only wrong but will keep going wrong.

You can’t fix problems by those who should be broad going deep. When something goes wrong a minister may well believe they have the intellectual resources to pick up the detail fast and sort it out in a way that those working on it already are unable. Most of the time that belief is terribly wrong. Fix detail before it goes wrong by tasking people to concentrate on the detail while you prepare the next thing – and then progress-check.

9. Welcome transparency

Hardest of all is ‘taking it on the chin’. The opposition will make mischief with any mistake you make because that is their job, just like it was your job when you were in opposition. And you absolutely will make mistakes. But if you focus on covering up or reopening previous mistakes you are almost certainly failing to notice the early stages of the next mistake.

Data on governmental performance is not an enemy to be PR managed but a tool to help you do better. Transparency is not there to overthrow you in some kind of administrative coup but to remind you not to do the wrong thing in the first place (and to protect others from the power you have).

If scrutiny isn’t making you better then the problem lies with you. The speedometer and the seatbelt aren’t there to trick you or catch you out but to save your life. Audit, scrutiny, proper record-keeping and minuting, freedom of information and user feedback isn’t there to trip you up or overthrow you. If it is having that effect ask yourself why and fix that.

There is sooooo much more

This isn’t even a comprehensive start to fixing government in Scotland. There are many questions not answered here – how to bring in talent, how to design good policy, how to set up the right structures, how to assess performance, how to improve project managment and much more need to be added on top of this. But this is the foundation.

Let me put it like this; if all of the above is in place and functioning well it doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be a good government, but if the above isn’t in place the chances of you being a good government are negligible.

These steps don’t require a revolution, at least not in Scotland. What needs to be there is there, but its strands are withered or have been contorted or distorted. Fixing them is a comparatively quick, comparatively easy process and much of it is about personalities and culture.

The private realm is no more assured at delivering outcomes than the private realm – think RBS, Theranos, P&O, Carillion et al. But the public realm creates the conditions on which everything else becomes possible and so rightly faces greater scrutiny.

In Scotland the future requires that government is capable of demonstrating competence. That requirement is not being met and it’s because government is being done badly.

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