This is what a good Programme for Government might look like

by | 5 Sep 2023

The new First Minister made a speech that didn't only sound exactly like the last First Minister, it contained all the same promises too. This is the different approach which might actually save Scotland.

Honestly, I’ve not really caught up with the new season of Programme for Government. I’m back on Season 5. No spoilers – I’m on the edge of my seat. It finished with a cliffhanger about a National Energy Company and I’m itching to know what happens next.

I did catch what I thought was a few moments the latest season by mistake but it seemed to be a repeat. Expanded childcare, a minimum income guarantee, free school meals, foreign direct investment, rent controls, a new fund to support innovation – was this not all (almost literally all) in previous Programme for Government episodes? Perhaps its like when soap operas start repeating the same plot line, hoping you won’t notice?

My colleague Craig Dalzell is doing a full analysis on Friday so I’ll leave that to him. And in any case, as I’ve been at pains to point out over and over again, these are all just words and it’s the same words every year (just in a slightly different order). The key is practice – what are they going to do differently in how they seek to achieve basically the same aims?

Yesterday I was highlighting how everything in Scotland feels like it doesn’t work. That is an accurate assessment. But it is our choice to live like that. In that article I picked a number of the most blatantly obvious failure points to show the scale of what is wrong. This isn’t about ‘aims’ or ‘goals’ or ‘targets’, this is about recognising that speeches don’t fix failures.

What fixes failures is change. The following is how a government which wanted to stop making the same mistakes in each would go about it, using yesterday’s examples to demonstrate.

First the NHS. The problem with the NHS is that the managers who are in total control (medics and medical staff do not run hospitals but answer to public sector managers without any medical training) believed they could slash capacity without consequence. They were wrong. Not only did it create the endless backlogs for care, it put so much pressure on staff they started leaving.

This created a downwards spiral. Covid didn’t break the system, Covid was the final straw. So what do we do? First, we need to expand capacity and it needs to be done in a manageable way. We don’t need more acute beds, we need patients who are no longer in acute need to be decanted into recuperation facilities (if they’re not quite ready to go home).

The Scottish Government has no money and can’t borrow so it should achieve this by telling local authorities to borrow and build small community hospitals everywhere (you can buy a hospital ward as a prefab and knock it up in a month or two) which the NHS will rent. People who need more respite but not acute care would be moved there.

You could recycle the old myth that economic growth cures poverty – you might even manage to say it with a straight face after 50 years of economic growth which didn’t cure poverty

But it is no good without staff, and medical staff take time to train. So the obvious thing to do would be to stop making the life of NHS staff a misery. Yet for some crazy reason, that is the strategy followed by NHS managers. For example nurses don’t get blocks of shifts – they can be on nightshift on Monday, afternoon shift on Tuesday and back to nightshift on Wednesday. That’s why so many are going to agency work where they can choose their shifts.

So introduce an internal shift-booking system that let’s people control their working life and pays a small premium for unsociable shifts if need be – it’ll save a fortune over agency staff. This is only an example – there needs to be a full package of measures to attract medical staff back into the NHS.

This is not enough by any manner of means, but it shows how ‘setting targets for the managers who screwed this up in the first place’ is not the only option for a politician – though it is the easiest option if fixing the NHS isn’t your priority.

Next, housing. The words are ‘we want to see lots of affordable homes built’. The reality is ‘developers will be asked to build affordable homes but will lobby and lobby to maximise their profit, generally by dropping the commitments they made in the planning process’.

We don’t need more developer homes – we have developer homes coming out our ears. We need accessible, affordable homes. That is best done quickly through public provision. If the public sector borrowed like homeowners do, spread repayment out over 30 years, use land value capture to make sure they pay the current use value for land, they could build as many houses as they want, without subsidy.

And they’d be much better homes, and much cheaper. We calculated this when we produced the paper in 2019. Then the average market cost to a homeowner for a two bedroom house (including energy and maintenance) was about £1,400 a month. Our build model could do it for a total cost of £840 a month. Amazing what you can do when you emphasise public good and not profit.

Or let’s take a really hard one, like poverty. You could recycle the old myth that economic growth cures poverty. You might even manage to say it with a straight face after 50 years of economic growth which didn’t cure poverty. The journalists and commentators might actually let you away with it. What you won’t do is cure poverty with economic growth.

There are two things that could make a faster dent in poverty (if anyone was interested). One is to change the economy, not grow it. That needs an industrial strategy. Remember, most poverty is now in-work poverty, so there is no point expanding poverty work. You need serious change. We’ve explained what this could look like at length in a number of places.

This won’t even nearly cut it however. Because the whole ‘it’s the economy which will sort this’ argument isn’t true and was never true. ‘The economy’ could have sorted this out years and years ago. Instead it concentrated wealth more and more. The economy is the problem and you can’t turn that round in two minutes.

So you have to invest in communities. Not as in ‘here, have a consultant on a salary no-one in your housing estate has even dreamed of’; as in put real capacity into these communities. At a point where the Scottish Government is cutting community health worker numbers (disproving the suggestion that anyone in government prioritises the poor), it is the opposite that would make the difference.

These are early intervention services which, if set up properly, are run by people in the community who are trained into these roles. It is an incredibly cost-efficient way to improve health in poor communities where often the biggest steps are quite simple, like telling people they need to go to a doctor early rather than tough it out.

I think I’d apologise, say there will be no new eye-candy initiatives until I can prove worthy of being trusted with leading the country an ask to be judged by what difference I’ve made by next year

Take that concept and repeat over and over. The fastest way to tackle the impact of poverty in Scotland would be community-based action backed by serious public money that wasn’t first stripped by the management classes for their own benefits before it reaches those communities.

And that is the final point – if you want to make any of this work you need a cull of the managerial classes. When people say ‘nothing in society works’, what you really mean is ‘the people running the things that don’t work failed horrendously’. One serious estimate I was given by a very knowledgeable person was that many public services have as much as a third of their resources absorbed by the management classes over and above what is needed for basic admin.

It is very, very easy to make a speech in which all you do is shuffle responsibility back to the people who screwed up in the first place and make it sound like decisive action. It isn’t. Stripping away the layers of failure and using the money on the front line is what does it.

And that you most certainly did not hear in today’s Programme for Government. Because this really is a programme for the governing classes. Think of it as their lottery win for the year – this assures that they will be kept in the manner to which they are now accustomed for another year while they produce you some charts and graphs to prove they are are worth it.

How would this sound if I made a speech about it? Well it could sound like ‘fixing the NHS by increasing capacity, setting record-breaking targets for affordable housebuilding and tackling poverty by instructing Scotland’s public agencies to transform lives’. But that would be precisely what they’ve been saying for a decade.

Nope, I don’t think I’d make a speech. I think I’d apologise, say there will be no new eye-candy initiatives until I can prove worthy of being trusted with leading the country an ask to be judged by what difference I’ve made by next year.

Fat chance of that in the modern era. What the Programme for Government did do was two things. First, it is a de facto repudiation of the entirety of Sturgeon’s reign. If you can go back through her Programmes for Government, lift all the best material and announce it again on the basis that none of it happened, you don’t need satirists or analysts.

The second is that this really is a continuity administration, as in everything which led us to where we are is going to continue unaltered, from the content of the announcements to how everything is going to be delivered.

As a nation we have the capacity to begin to turn around the wall-to-wall mess in which we find ourselves, but we don’t have the political leadership from any political party which has the ability to unlock that capacity.

Bin the lobbyists, bin the consultants, bin the management class, bin the bureaucracy they demand, bin the speeches, bin the soundbites, do things in obvious ways that work like you’d never met a management consultant before, make sure that every penny you spend makes it to the front line of services and spread power more evenly so we’re not all reliant on a single messiah figure for everything.

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