Why is everything going wrong?

by | 8 Oct 2021

Errors and failures by the Scottish Government stretch as far as the eye can see. Introducing a short series to explore why the structure and culture of this administration is causing it to happen.

The full series: Introduction | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five


On some days it seems that whatever the Scottish Government does goes wrong. The list is so long now that it is really hard to capture it in succinct ways (here’s a taster). The emblematic failure must be the education agenda which was announced with a fanfare and then, over the course of about four years, fell apart almost completely.

But there is one policy which goes above and beyond in its ability to signpost that something is very wrong at the heart of government; the smoke detector debacle. When you spell this out it is almost impossible to grasp how it could have been handled so badly.

A policy is created which required all smoke alarms to be hard-wired to the mains and to each other. That means that if one smoke detector is quickly damaged in the event of a fire the occupants can rely on all the others picking this up and, well, raising the alarm. It is sensible, good practice. But it is not easy or routine. It requires fairly extensive rewiring of you house.

Nevertheless, as ‘a good thing’ this policy was signed off at some point and its enforcement (i.e. the making of this into a legal requirement) was set in stone. So far so straightforward. From there the whole affair devolves into what would be charitably described as a farce.

First, the Scottish Government decided not to tell anyone about this policy. Quite seriously, it wasn’t announced. At the point at which legal enforcement kicks in it is likely that your home insurance policy would be invalidated by failing to comply with legal fire requirements, and yet it seems to have been decided that you didn’t need to know that.

I get the Scottish Government’s daily bulletins on what is going on and I learned about this policy from my mum. She in turn learned about it because she was cold-called by a contractor telling her her house insurance could be invalidated and offering to do the work. This happened to a lot of people.

It was only then that the Scottish Government decided to announce this requirement – in the middle of a pandemic and leaving people with only a few months to carry out the remedial work. I did a quick calculation; taking the number of registered electricians in Scotland and assuming they could do two houses a day and then dividing the total housing stock by that number it became clear that even if every electrician in the country did only that it still wasn’t possible to get everyone compliant in time.

Inevitably it was then postponed. And then re-announced again, still in a pandemic and still with only months of notice to comply. Crashing up against the same impossibilities as the last time the response was to drop the level of the regulations, and then to do it again. Did we say ‘hard wired to each other and the mains’? We meant ‘wifi-ed to each other and having double A batteries’.

So let’s put it like this – if a fire breaks out in your house, fingers crossed it doesn’t start with your BT home hub and melt the first alarm…

This isn’t bad, this is keystone cops bad, Plan 9 From Outer Space bad, Kevin Federline bad

My mind boggles at all of this. It’s not that collectively this is one of the most incompetent things I’ve ever seen in my life, it’s that each individual part of it constitutes some of the highest levels of incompetence I’ve ever seen in a government. This isn’t bad, this is keystone cops bad, Plan 9 From Outer Space bad, Kevin Federline bad.

I would find myself wondering how it was possible, how one government could be acquiring such an endless list of failures in such a short period of time – but I kind of know why. I’ve been aware of the problems for a while.

But the reasons really are geek stuff, governmental insider stuff that may not all be immediately obvious to the outside world. I’m taking the October week off next week to do something nice with the kids so I’ve pre-written an analysis series on why these failures keep happening. I’ll pre-schedule them for one a day when I’m off.

I think it would be useful to explain how I derived these conclusions. I’ve worked closely with (occasionally against) various governments since about 1995. I’ve seen the inside of most administrations since – Major, Blair, Brown, McLeish (briefly), McConnell, Salmond and Sturgeon (less so the post-devolution Tory Westminster administrations but I had some ‘sight lines’…)

I worked with special advisors, stakeholders, parliamentary committees, public agencies and government ministers. I’ve seen all the wheels of government grind away – I was a political lobbyist, so knowing where all the cogs and levers are is a core part of the trade.

So when a new administration takes over (they’re all different, they all have their own structure and culture) I’d always do the same thing. I’d find anyone with any knowledge or sight of the government to answer me three questions: “who makes the decisions, what influences the decisions and who else is in the room?”

From that (with enough responses) you can pretty well derive the working structure of the government.

So when the Sturgeon administration took over (effectively in October 2014) I did what I’d always do – pin people to the wall (metaphorically) and ask them my questions. I asked junior researchers, Cabinet Secretaries, civil servants, senior party activists, backbenchers, journalists, absolutely anyone who might know.

Neither Scotland nor the independence movement can afford for this track record of failure to persist, never mind the real possibility it could degenerate further

Over a year I must have asked this of, oh, 50 people. At the end of the process I sat at a social event with someone senior in the government. I told them my conclusions and said ‘but that can’t be right, that would be totally mad – I must be missing something’.

The answer I got (this is late 2015) was “what makes you think you’re missing something?”. I became convinced at that moment that the chances of this administration not creating a string of failures and serious errors was slim to non-existent. I wasn’t wrong. No administration in the devolution era has achieved so little by way of concrete outcomes and yet has made so many obvious errors in the process.

Back to education – in normal circumstances the scale of that failure was so great that it would prompt serious questions. But Scotland isn’t in normal circumstances. Our media is emaciated. There is a strange polarisation of Scottish politics around the constitutional issue and opposition parties have been weak and overly focussed on the constitution at the expense of domestic policy. And, fundamentally, half the population wished this government well and mistrusted criticism.

Until now. Now it is really, really hard not to see just how much is going wrong and how fast it is going wrong. There are very specific reasons why this is happening. It has nothing whatsoever to do with my political beliefs – I’ve seen administrations I disagreed with but which I fully acknowledge were competent as they went about their business.

It’s not about whether I agree or disagree, it’s about why I think the dull, boring machinery of government in Scotland is making these failures inevitable and comprehensive. Over the next week I will try and explain why I think all of this is happening.

Neither Scotland nor the independence movement can afford for this track record of failure to persist, never mind the real possibility it could degenerate further. As a nation we must face this problem now. Failure can’t become a way of life.

Everything is going wrong. It needs to stop.


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