Why is everything going wrong? 4: Structure

by | 14 Oct 2021

Government's aren't 'ideas' or 'personalities', they're structures of people doing specific jobs. If you get the structure wrong, the job won't be done properly

It is perhaps not said often enough but government is in large part a ‘physical entity’. It is not made up primarily of ‘ideas’ or ‘narratives’ but of physical realities and people delivering them. The way those physical realities are structured will go a long way towards defining the success of the government.

The first problem of the structure of the Scottish Government has already been explored – centralisation and control. As has been explained, centralised control is almost impossible to reconcile with responsive, effective, broad-based government. The moving parts cannot all be operated by a single person; they will ‘freeze up’ or grind against each other.

That creates the additional problem of coherence. The Scottish Government operates upwards but rarely across – each Minister knows the success or failure of any initiative (not in operation but in getting to completion) is dependent on support and endorsement from the top.

This leads to an unhelpful orientation of working practice – rather than Ministers who work in different policy areas which overlap ‘looking each other in the eye’, their gaze is constantly directed upwards. ‘Will this pass the test? Am I going to be asked to redo this work?’

That is harmful for coherence. At the moment the Scottish Government is running food policy from one department, food rights policy from another, agriculture policy from yet another, food poverty in another again, environmental policy somewhere else and land use policy in yet another.

It is not just that these policies are being developed separately, it’s that they’re being delivered in silos from each other. Each has its own legislative process and so the delivery detail will be spread across half a dozen different pieces of legislation.

This is not ‘cross cutting’ policy, it is cross-conflicting policy because they’re being developed for different reasons to meet different problems (agriculture because of Brexit and the end of the Common Agricultural Policy, environment because of carbon targets, land reluctantly because of pressure from campaigners, food poverty as part of the broader poverty issue and so on).

The siloing of Ministers also mean that external stakeholders are siloed too, each being managed by a different department. This fragments the knowledge and experience of different stakeholders and the result is as much a ‘battle of lobbyists’ as of design.

Key figures in government seek to manage what can’t really be managed (public perception) and so fail to manage properly the things they need to be managing (the operation of government)

But one of the biggest problems comes from the orientation of key figures in government. Rather than looking inwards they look outwards. They seek to manage what can’t really be managed (public perception) and so fail to manage properly the things they need to be managing (the operation of government).

For example, the modern structure of Special Advisors (Spads) was largely devised by New Labour before it was in power. They were conceived of as powerful and effective ‘Sergeant Majors’, anonymously driving policy forward. They were the interface between ‘concept and purpose’ and ‘detail’ as previously described in the ‘Detail’ analysis. The public was largely unaware of who the Spads actually were.

With one exception – Alastair Campbell. He was the Spad who looked not inwards but outwards. All public communications came through him. But the Scottish Government seem to have misunderstood and taken Campbell to be the norm, not the exception.

Civil servants report in private that the current Spads focus on ‘reputation management’. They are too hands-off in the policy development process but become very hands-on when the media starts to sense a mistake has been made.

A successfully-orientated government does not wait for errors to occur in policy development or implementation before intervening – they manage the process consistently all the way through to make sure these errors aren’t hard wired. How a Spad didn’t identify that there weren’t enough electricians in the country to install smoke detectors in a three-month period before the announcement was made is impossible to fathom.

The structure of a good government is not for its business managers to look ‘upwards and outwards’, but rather ‘across and inwards’. If you get it right, you don’t need to manage the errors. If you are always looking outwards, no-one is managing the process behind you.

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