Friday, 19 August 2016

Is the Scottish Government suffering from a severe case of initiativitis?

“We must do something now!” the cry of many a politician. There’s a famous scene in The Thick of It where the Minister is on their way to a press conference and due to unfolding events they have to announce a policy to “do something”. The Minister’s car drives round a roundabout repeatedly while the Minister and her advisors come up with something suitable. Has this approach to policy-making cursed the Scottish Government?

Back in the day, the old Scottish Executives between 1999-2007 were criticised by the opposition and external critics for having a severe case of initiativitis. Because of the limited powers of the devolution settlement, a fairly easy way for the Executive to be seen to be doing something was to ring-fence a small pot of money and send it the way of the problem or group demanding attention. We can interpret this using bog-standard, Dahl-esque, pluralism – various interests would coalesce around Ministers and the resources would be dished-out accordingly.

The way the Scottish Executive’s budget grew during the period helped this along. Because UK departments that had been devolved were getting the lions-share*of the increases in public expenditure between 1999 and 2008, the devolved budgets grew at a faster rate than the equivalent entire budget of the UK Government. This meant, once extra allocations to health and education to match Westminster had been dished out, the extra could be spent on the pet initiatives. My own area of doctoral research – the Community Regeneration Fund (CRF) (and its precursor the Better Neighbourhood Services Fund) – were classic examples of this. Labour MSPs felt pressure from constituents living in deprived neighbourhoods to “do something” about the problems in the neighbourhoods, so set aside an impressive-sounding £354 million to be spent over three years. Alas, that was actually just a third of one per cent of the Scottish Executive’s annual budget of over £30 billion, so it didn’t amount to much at all.

As my colleague Paul Cairney highlights, the reason for the SNP’s electoral success, especially in 2011, was they were seen as very competent in government. One of the earliest policy decisions (that made my doctoral research rather interesting as I was in the field as it happened) was to roll-back many of the initiatives of the previous Scottish Executive (including the CRF). Sectors of the public services were given un-ringfenced budgets in return for meeting certain outcomes and also output targets (1,000 extra police officers, class sizes, free schools meals etc.). This enabled the Scottish Government to take credit for when things went well, and “devolve” blame when things went wrong – a cunning example of the difficulties of accountability in complex governance.

This strategy has generally worked very well. Until recently, it seems. Scotland is suffering substantial reductions in public expenditure like the rest of the UK. As in England, these are being made even worse by the increases in expenditure on the health, leaving other services increasingly stretched. Of course, demographic challenges mean health needs more than the increases it is getting anyway. These problems need sorting. But the Scottish Government no longer has the ever-increasing pot of money from Westminster coming its way. So we see the return of initiatives, some big ones like the Scottish Attainment Challenge Fund (£750 million over five years; approx. 0.005 per cent of the Scottish Government DEL over the period – based on £30 billion p.a. DEL)  and also small, odd ones that could have been delivered by reconfiguring existing services: £4.2 million for a mental health intervention; £2 million on participatory budgeting (the oxymoron being here that PB should negate the need for initiative funding); £200,000 to help get disabled people into politics – a laudable aim, but the right way to achieve it?; £70,000 for a violence reduction project at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. And these are mainly just the ones that have been announced since 1 July. This doesn’t include all the agreements signed, and new strategies launched on rather small matters.

What drew my attention to this issue, and why I write this post, is today’s announcement of the First Minister’s Reading Challenge. I was initially intrigued by the name – it seemed very odd to name a policy in such a way. I joked on Twitter that we might now expect “Theresa May’s Mathematics Fun Day”. Slightly more seriously, the Literacy Hour in English schools, launched in 1997, was not known as Tony Blair’s Literary Hour probably because, as a friend suggested, it “sounds like some kind of dystopian nightmare”.

Education is currently a weak spot for the Scottish Government. Educational attainment across Scotland is slipping on most international measures. The gap between attainment at schools in the most deprived and least deprived neighbourhoods is growing in Scotland, yet it is falling in England. Arguably this matters in Scotland because of national pride – the reason Scotland is listed separately in OECD education league tables is because of the different educational system, but also because Scotland used to outperform England by some margin. So Something Must Be Done.

And the Reading Challenge has all the hallmarks of something. Pause now and have a look at the Scottish Book Trust’s web page for it. It seems the challenge was announced back in March by the First Minister. An advisory group was set up and has met twice in April and May this year (minutes available on the website). The April minutes make for interesting reading for two reasons – a minor reason was that the group seemed to want the initiative to be seen to be independent of government (making the name choice even odder). Secondly, the initiative seems to include a competition, even though the minutes state that “The Group recommended that if possible these elements of the Challenge be removed”.

The plot thickens, slightly, reading the BBC news coverage. It states:

“The Scottish government said its list of 100 books had been selected by a panel of academics, experts and teachers.

It includes Ms Sturgeon's favourite childhood book - Five On A Treasure Island - from Enid Blyton's Famous Five series.”

Whereas the Scottish Book Trust website suggests that the list is still under development. This really does look like policy for the sake of doing something, that has been implemented, even at a basic level, pretty poorly.

Now, you might say this doesn’t matter – we’re not talking about wasting billions of pounds of budget like the much more shocking case of the UK Government’s Troubled Families project. But it is still a waste of resources, and policy attention, towards something that will probably make no difference to the appalling under-performance of children from the poorest households in Scotland’s schools.

* apologies for the clich├ęs, I don’t know what’s come over me.