Why does nothing ever change?

One of the things having a Scottish Parliament was supposed to do was to protect Scotland from the seemingly endless failures of rule from Westminster. But since devolution there has been a wide range of social, economic and policy failures which have been widely recognised and discussed – from the enduring problem of poverty, the poor quality of our economic development agencies or the inefficient (and often shoddy) way we build public infrastructure using PFI. And many times momentum has grown behind calls for change. In fact quite a few times government or public agencies have accepted the need for change – and yet somehow it seems like nothing actually changes. Why is that?

Scotland is run by a surprisingly small group of senior public officials, big business owners and managers, giant accounting corporations and big law firms and senior staff in big corporate NGOs. Lobbyists and think tanks act as intermediaries between them and various academics and consultancy firms advise them. They all know each other. They are Scotland’s ‘ruling class’ and we will meet these people again soon.

But the way they run Scotland creates problems for ordinary people – perhaps someone with a drug addiction, or who is struggling to start a business, or who lives in a community with a crime problem

But for the purposes of public policy this doesn’t really count until it is properly measured and codified either in public statistics or because an academic or a campaign group has turned it into a statistic

Generally though this in itself still isn’t enough – this has to get noticed to become an issue for public policy. For issues where there is a really effective campaign this can be raised directly (more often than not through lobbying) but usually that means it needs to get into the media.

It is really only at this point that the problem becomes an issue for a senior politician. Until this happens it is unlikely that much will be done to resolve the policy problem the person started with.

This will trigger a process of meetings to discuss what to do now this has become a problem for the politician and not just the person we started with. These meetings will either be of a working group or taskforce set up by the politician or will be set up by the civil service who will invite in ‘stakeholders’ and ‘advisers’

So who will be at these meetings? This is where we meet the people we started with again. It doesn’t matter whether it is a task force, working group or series of consultative meetings – they’ll still be made up of ‘stakeholders’ and ‘advisers’. These will be from exactly the same pool of very senior professionals from the public, private and large NGO sector with a few academics or economists. They’ll be back soon…

In between these meetings will be a process of policy development which will involve the production of papers and research and negotiations between various of the stakeholders. Almost all of this will take place privately inside the civil service.

So who manages this process? Usually it will be handled by the civil service and overseen at the senior level by senior managers in the civil service. They will all have been one of the group of very senior advisers and stakeholders we met twice before.

At the end of all of this there will be a draft proposal – a parliamentary Bill, a policy paper or a strategy. This will be presented to politicians as the starting point for their debate and further deliberation – but it has been largely produced by the people who were running Scotland in the first place

It will now be debated by politicians – but they will also be lobbied by organisations and companies which want to see a particular outcome. Yet again, these organisations and companies will almost certainly be part of the network of influencers who shaped the proposal in the first place.

As part of that process a committee of the parliament will hold hearings to take evidence. These may include people with experience of whatever problem this whole process is trying to solve, but those giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament are by far most likely to be…

…yes, you guessed it. It is mainly senior people from the business sector, big NGOs, the civil service and senior academics.

Finally after the politicians have adapted or altered the proposal they will become law, government policy or the national strategy. And who will then be responsible for delivering these policies in practical terms?


Remember, this whole process started because the way things were being done wasn’t working and it was causing problems for people in the real world. But the whole process of trying to fix the problem was almost all run and shaped by the people who were running things in the old way in the first place. And so very often the person in the real world who faces the consequences of the problem ends up feeling that, well, nothing has really changed.

Sadly, more often than not, they’re basically right.

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