Friday, 16 December 2011

Why the National Performance Framework is not boring and we should obsess about it and critique it

The Scottish Government’s been busy in its first few months of office. As well as the Anti-Sectarianism Act, which has even made the news in Engerland, we’ve had a budget, this week’s Regeneration Strategy and the Cities Strategy is on its way. However, the Big Thing for me was the announcement on Wednesday of a refreshed National Performance Framework (NPF). This hasn’t received much attention; in fact as one of my Twitter followers put it: “ooh National Indicators *squeee*”

The NPF was launched as part of the SNP minority Scottish Government’s first budget in 2007. I heard the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth (to give him his full title) John Swinney MSP describe it as his “greatest achievement”. It didn’t receive much attention then, but it really matters. To give an idea of this, the central “Purpose” of the NPF is:
“To focus Government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth.

My emphasis added. Why? Because this is about all public services. Community Planning Partnerships, led by local authorities, including health boards, the Police, Fire and Rescue Service, third sector and private sector have to agree Single OutcomeAgreements with the Scottish Government describing how they will work to achieve the NPF and their priorities within it.  All QUANGOs, NDPBs and other agencies have to include how they will meet national outcomes in their business plans and other strategies.

I worked on the outcome focus a lot in my time as a Civil Servant with the Scottish Government. The “outcome focus” in public management came from experience in America (usually at State level) and New Zealand in the 1990s, where the output focus was making government activity measureable but still wasn’t producing effects on society. The idea now has evangelists; in global organisations like the World Bank; and also policy entrepreneurs like Mark Friedman, who made a big impact in services for children and young peoplein the last Labour UK Government. Scotland itself did the policy transfer from the Commonwealth Virginia and the “Virginia Performs” site; we have the “ScotlandPerforms” scorecard. I understand why it’s so beguiling. As Mark Friedman points out, if you set out your aims in a clear and obvious way, linked to indicators then you will make a difference. Especially as you can measure it. Scotland has actually been at it for years. 

The old Scottish Executive took to using outcome agreements to performance manage ring-fence funding streams, including the BetterNeighbourhood Services Fund (2001), the Community Regeneration Fund (2005-8), and Community Safety Fund. The NPF was being drafted by Civil Servants in Saint Andrew’s House from autumn 2006, before the SNP victory in May 2007. The original just had 14 outcomes (didn’t have the one on national identity), each of which was linked to a target and an indicator.

I have three problems with the outcomes approach. Firstly, it doesn’t work on many levels. For example, in New Zealand the focus on marginal budget changes to fund swanky projects that might produce an outcome led to Government departments forgetting to do things like run schools and hospitals. The move to performance budgeting, or outcome budgeting, was the Holy Grail for the Scottish Government. The Scottish Parliament Finance Committee, among others, kept asking for it. The basic intellectual challenge was how do you buy one “we live longer healthier lives”? It seems, by building an enormous measurement bureaucracy. Scotland kind of went down this line with the vast amounts of time and effort spent on the local indicators project. There’s also a lot of waffle in the evangelists’ literature about how outcomes matter because people understand them. This is why we should have scorecards to engage people. The fact that nobody outside certain groups of public sector workers and politicians in Scotland knows about, or fully understands, the NPF and outcome approach shows what complete and utter bollocks this is. This is still managerialism of the worst sort. 

Secondly, in classic NPM way, it depoliticises policy making. It takes “what matters is what works” to a terrifying conclusion. What matters is meeting the outcome. For example, the outcome “We have tackled the significant inequalities in Scottish society” is meant to be predominantly met by meeting the Solidarity Purpose Target of increasing the proportion of income earned by the lowest three deciles. However, Alex Salmond believes we can do this without redistributive taxation. The limits to Holyrood’s power also mean that the way we’re going to meet many of the outcomes is through “early intervention” which I’ve already expressed my discomfort at. Technically if you have an outcomes approach you don’t actually need policies and strategies. You just work towards your outcomes. They are your strategy. This has kind of come true in Scotland with the three social policy frameworks, Achieving OurPotential, The Early Years Framework and Equally Well. These are just vague guides as to how the Scottish Government and it's "partners" will go about meeting their outcomes forever more and day. You can’t disagree with an outcome, so you can’t have political debate about them. And what’s worrying is this is why, I think, Civil Servants in Victoria Quay and Saint Andrew’s House like them so much. I also think it's no accident that the biggest governmental supporters of the outcomes approach are Republican Governors in the US and right wing governments elsewhere in the world.

Finally is a lazy Foucauldian argument. Come on, look at it, the Scottish Government want to change the whole country no matter what. In terms of governmentality the critique writes itself. I did some work on national outcome 8: “We have improved the life chances for children, young people and families at risk” (N.B. you’re not supposed to number them, as they’re all equally important) and used to joke with colleagues that we don’t have “NEETs” or “NEDs” but “national outcome 8s”. All policy Civil Servants in the Scottish Government would turn up to meetings with their A4 laminated copy of the NPF to make sure they were meeting outcomes. This is a lazy argument, but it also highlights why it’s difficult to implement – although it is supposed to elide politics, since it is combined with the Council Tax freeze it’s actually acerbating national-local tensions. Basically, if you sorted out health outcomes in Glasgow you’d solve Scotland’s problem with “longer healthier lives”, but Glasgow Council are more interested in a good start for their kids. If you taxed the oil magnates of Aberdeen, Scotland wouldn’t have “significant inequalities” to be tackled. Orkney doesn’t have crime; the local newspaper leads on stories like “local man falls off wall” (can't find the original article, but it did exist). Their SOA entry for the national outcome “We live our lives safe from crime, disorder and danger” just makes me laugh.

Having said all this, I do really like the new, sixteenth national outcome: “Our people are able to maintain their independence as they get older and are able to access appropriate support when they need it”.

This is basically a cut-down version of a paper I wrote earlier this year for a special issue of a journal on Scottish social policy after devolution. It got rejected because I don’t know enough of the “theory” (I wasn’t referencing the most up-to-the-minute articles on the subject) and the reviewers took issue with my “ethnography” of reporting as a former Civil Servant. But I do feel the NPF and the outcome-approach in Scotland does need critiquing from academe. It cannot just be dismissed as “performance management” or another boring incarnation of the NPM. If we’re not careful then the will to “meet outcomes” could become state injustice and violence against individuals and families because it meets Scotland’s ambitions to “flourish”.

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