The Scottish Government has a rigidness of hierarchy which is towards the far end of the scale. More than one Cabinet Secretary has joked in public that they ‘hear government policy on Twitter like everyone else’. No-one really pretends that Cabinet is where decisions get made, or at times even discussed.
This has often been taken to be a means of operation which is exaggerated for comic effect, but it isn’t. It is routine that the Minister with responsible for a policy area either hears a policy has been set before being involved in the discussion or is told directly what the policy is with no substantial leeway to shape or influence it.
If policy decisions are seen as being ‘strategically important’ (i.e. they are identified as being of sufficient public interest that they will be reported in the media), control of the narrative around these policies remains largely within the First Minister’s office.
Drawn out policy development processes which produce packaged proposals with the support of stakeholder groups can be either radically changed at the last minute or be scrapped altogether if it is seen as, on the surface, being counter to the government narrative being pursued when reviewed at the top level.
This creates a disjointed policy development process and leaves civil servants and others to try and square up the policy imperatives identified by those who work on the policy full-time and the narrative expectations of leadership – which can easily clash.
There are other problems which the need to control policy creates. The hierarchy stretches down further than Cabinet and Ministers who have specific responsibility for specific policy areas often report not having an overview of how what they’ve been asked to do fits in to the wider structure of what the Government as a whole is doing in the related policy areas.
This creates the problem like that of the children’s game where one child draws a characters legs, another draws the torso and another draws the head, each not knowing what the other has drawn creating a chimera character. In a children’s game this is funny, in government it risks creating an incoherent mess.
It leaves Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers ‘painting the roses red’, struggling to deliver the appearance of pre-announced outcomes by trying to wrestle real-world situations into a predefined shape whether or not real-world situations are capable of adopting that shape or not
But that is not the extent of the problem. This kind of command-and-control policy-making doesn’t sit comfortably with developing and engaging policy networks. It is almost impossible for one body or entity alone to make policy in a broad policy area without drawing on the experience and knowledge of a range of individuals or groups inside (and sometimes beyond) that policy area.
Often effective policy-making requires open, trusting relationships with stakeholders – even those who may be hostile to the policy goals being pursued. It is not only about gathering the best thinking but also about bringing stakeholders along collectively during the process. In private most organisations feel less central to the development of policy than under previous administrations.
This all creates a cluster of mutually-reinforcing problems – disjointed policy, abrupt u-turns at late stages in policy development, networks of expertise being ‘managed’ rather than utilised, policy being shaped to a preset narrative whether or not the narrative is correct in any given policy area.
But perhaps one of the most damaging outcomes is the requirement of policy-developers to meet the goal of pre-announced narratives whether it is achievable or not – the collapse of the education policy agenda over four years is rooted in the fact that it was announced based on a shallow reading of one strand of policy from England which clashed with the structure of Scottish education.
It leaves Cabinet Secretaries and Ministers ‘painting the roses red’, struggling to deliver the appearance of pre-announced outcomes by trying to wrestle real-world situations into a predefined shape whether or not real-world situations are capable of adopting that shape or not.
Good policy is not and never has been the result of ‘one genius mind’, even in a circumstance where the person has a great policy mind. Policy is a collective and collaborative process which must work forward to outcomes, not backwards from outcomes.
It needs stability in development, not lurches back and forward. Even a presidential political system (which government in Scotland is not structured to facilitate) cannot function purely on command and control – at least not in an advanced democracy and economy.
It is a strategic process, not a presentational one. These two imperatives can be successfully reconciled, but not if the outcome is predefined before the strategic process is undertaken.