This is a mess we can pick up ourselves

by | 7 Jun 2024

Yes, for many people looking at the current state of public policy and democracy in Scotland is a bit depressing. That's the wrong way to look at it - we need to focus on what we need to do to change it.

First published by Common Weal

There is a literary quote which has had an outsized impact on my approach to politics and policy. That impact is purely because it comes from one of my very favourite books and the message was drilled into my repeatedly by my mother when I was young. It goes:

“And this mess was so big / and so deep and so tall / we cannot pick it up / there is no way at all”

Then again, if there is much about life that you can’t derive from the Cat in The Hat (or at least the collected works of Dr Seuss) I am sceptical it is all that important. Because in the book the mess gets cleared, and while it does indeed get cleared through a miraculous cleaning machine, the lesson is the same. You start by picking up the first thing, and then you repeat, until some point when you realised you’re done.

Oh my god the mess in Scotland’s public policy and democracy is so big, so deep, so tall that standing in front of it and being dissatisfied leaves you with an overwhelming sensation – despair and paralysis. I have been seeking out an awful lot of conversations with people (activist and decidedly non-activist alike), and that is what everyone says. The mess is to big to see a way out.

So let me persuade you that that is a mistake. The mess is less total, less complete than you think. If we start to pick up a surprisingly small amount of our mess, the task will quickly start to feel very manageable indeed. I want to persuade you here that the source of Scotland’s problems is eminently fixable.

Look through the mess; are there really any fundamental reasons we can’t get our act together? It isn’t the skills of our citizens – we’re one of the best educated countries in the world. It isn’t our natural resources which are excellent. It’s not the fundamental building blocks of our public services which are way more than adequate for the task.

And, despite my familiarity with the burgeoning body of spurious crap written by people who are desperate to convince you that public attitude research proves that we’re not a nation of social democrats after all, but it’s all measurably wrong.

Unlike most of Europe Scotland not only doesn’t have a resurgent far right or a substantial anti-immigration politics, it has almost no politically-organised far right and next to no organised anti-immigration sentiment. You can’t get a cigarette paper between the strongly social democratic policies of about 80 per cent of the political parties Scotland votes for. Right now, in a western context, that is like absolute gold dust.

So why does it feel like such an overwhelming mess? It’s down to how our democracy is operating in practice and the way public policy has been delivered in recent decades. Both are eminently reformable.

Scotland’s enormous human resources are dreadfully poorly used because a centralising tendency among both politicians and bureaucrats means that Scotland’s human resources are starved of power and money

First, to really pick up the mess we’d need to escape Westminster’s economic and political straitjacket and undertake very major media ownership reform. But that isn’t something we can do right now, so let’s work with what we can do.

Of what remains, an enormous amount is to do with centralisation. Scotland’s enormous human resources are dreadfully poorly used because a centralising tendency among both politicians and bureaucrats means that Scotland’s human resources are starved of power and money. Try doing something good and useful in Scotland without a bureaucrat’s express permission and you will be punished for it.

Oh, and try and get permission and you will almost certainly fail. We have normalised the withholding of power and resource by a bureaucratic elite and it is choking the life out of the country.

It is also wasting our money to an absolutely inordinate extent. I’ve written loads on the way that management culture in public services proliferates managers (who can replicate themselves at will because they control the budgets) who then need to impose massive amounts of bureaucracy on frontline workers so that the managers have something to do.

A substantial chunk of the rest of our public resources are hived off by corporate elites which don’t mess around with democracy and instead use privileged access to the civil service and executive agencies and use it to direct ever-increasing amounts of public money in their own direction. From PFI to the tens of millions spent on policy consultants, our money ends up with the people who need it least.

The power of commercial elite and their lack of any commitment to the public good shapes our legislation for the worse, so we get shit policy that always privatises something. I mean, they’ve literally just issued a public tender to commercial consultants to come up with a model for ‘monetising’ (i.e. privatising the value of) Scotland’s atmosphere and animals. It literally says that.

From there, the culture of our politics is broken internally and externally. The the SNP, Scottish Labour, the Greens, Alba – none of their senior figures ever saw signs of internal democracy they didn’t see as in need of being brought under control.

And in all of the above we no longer have the means to scrutinise what is going on because the ‘organs of scrutiny’ in Scotland are so emaciated. From the media to think tanks to academic commentators, Scotland is denuded. Our loss of local media is perhaps worst of all.

Wherever failed approaches can be changed, change them

I know this sounds like a wide-scale mess, so big and so wide and so tall that we are screwed. But stop and look again at how easily each of these pieces of mess could be picked up. A decentralisation bill which created the full gamut of local and participatory politics would unleash a phenomenal amount of Scottish energy and talent.

Using co-design (designing policies as a real partnership with users and those delivering it) rather than commercial consultants would transform the quality of policymaking overnight (and save a fortune). Looking at ways to enshrine a not-for-profit requirement into the delivery of public services would cut out massive amounts of waste and corruption.

Wherever failed approaches can be changed, change them. PFI is a perfect example where there are better alternatives that aren’t being considered because the ‘public’ agency which handles infrastructure is all but a trade association for the private equity industry.

Reform the civil service by shifting much more of the debate into the public realm and crack down on the ‘black box’ effect of decisions being made in secret for opaque reasons. Take a mandatory ‘front line first’ approach to funding. You could legislate. Let frontline workers challenge bureaucracies to prove that they are all necessary to delivering the service. Set up Citizens’ Juries to adjudicate and hand managers P45s if they can’t.

Drop managerial culture and end both targets and performance indicators. Targets are for government, not for frontline services. Learn about self-management and the ways in which frontline workers can self-organise in effective and efficient ways that improve services and result in major cost-releasing leanness.

Tackle our political weaknesses through reform of democracy. Invest in journalism. Create a second Citizens’ Chamber of the Scottish Parliament, reform parliament to make committees and backbenchers more independent, perhaps implement action to ensure that political parties which are eligible for election to the Scottish Parliament achieve a robust level of internal democracy. Again, perhaps members of political parties should have a pathway to challenge their own parties legally if they do not.

That is basically four programmes of action – decentralisation, stripping managerialism and profiteering from public services, reforming the process of policy development and enacting basic democratic reforms. 

No, this doesn’t undo 40 years of going in the opposite direction. No it doesn’t deal with the underlying problem of the failing global economics we’re stuck with. No, in itself it won’t reduce inequality. No, it won’t improve public health in an of itself. Nope, it does something more important than that; it makes those tasks easier by equipping our democracy with the tools to do it.

A big mess is an invitation to start picking things up. Freezing in despair and shrugging is frankly what the baddies want us to do. But if we shift some of the big items early, the task ahead will look an awful lot more achievable than it does now. Scotland is perfectly saveable. Now, who is going to start it…

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