The civil service has a role to both design policy and then also to implement it. These two roles can very easily be in tension. The policy design process pushes towards identifying problems and creating the most effective solution. But the implementation part tends in the other direction, favouring whatever solution is easiest to deliver.
Worse, this conflict largely gets resolved in private so it is hard to judge whether a final policy proposal is the best solution or the best solution to implement. Separating these functions would make an enormous difference. That is what Policy Academies would do.
National Policy Academies would be big, open, transparent, public centres of thinking. Each would be attached to a university (perhaps democracy and participation at Edinburgh University, regional economy at Glasgow, rural policy in Stirling, poverty and inclusion at Glasgow Caledonian, housing and town planning at Glasgow School of Art, energy at Aberdeen and so on).
Then the policy development civil servants (the ones devising the policies) would be seconded to these academies. A balance of secondments from other organisations could be made – campaigners, practitioners and so on. Together they would work with academics to form big public ‘think tanks’.
When a Minister wants a policy developed, rather than dropping the instruction into the closed box which is the civil service, it would commission the policy from an academy. Everyone would be able to see the development process – the brief, ideas proposed, the ideas rejected.
And everyone (individual or organisation) could feed in their own ideas right from the beginning which would be a much more effective way of harnessing the nation’s intellectual capital than the blunt methods of consultation currently used.
National Policy Academies would be big, open, transparent, public centres of thinking
At the end of the process, a report (possibly with multiple options) would be sent back to the Minister. This would be entirely public and transparent so everyone would know exactly what recommendation or recommendations where made and why. It would then be for the minister to choose. This would also therefore be in full public view.
Once the Minster had decided on the chosen outcome it would be given to the other part of the civil service to implement. The implementation arm of the civil service would already have been able to shape the policy development stage (as would anyone else who wanted to) but would now have to be transparent about which further compromises (if any) it felt were necessary to make the policy work.
Policy Academies would therefore open up government. They would help to capture intellectual resources not being adequately used. We’d create long-term centres of excellence in public thinking. We’d unleash the creativity of the best of the civil service. We’d create a legacy where ideas not adopted or paths not taken would be public record so would always be able to come back to them in the future.
A system of National Policy Academies could be set up under devolution and would transform how policy is made in Scotland, shedding light on an often opaque process and opening it up to new ideas.