Saturday, 6 February 2016

Policy Making in Scotland

Very kindly, Derek Grieve, Head of the Active Scotland Division of the Scottish Government came to speak to my students on Friday morning about how a Minister might use evidence to make decisions. It was a good talk and I thought I'd summarise a couple of insights here for everyone's benefit, and also as an example of blogging for my students who have less than a week to complete a blog post for an assignment.

The first thing I noted was what he spoke about, effectively in the frame of the "ROAMEF" of "rational" policy cycle the policy "problem" and how it was defined. He spoke about the Commonwealth Games and I couldn't help but note that the "policy" of the Commonwealth Games was framed as solving the "problem" of the legacy of such mega-events. The aim was to use the policy to maximise benefits, particularly the economic and health benefits, for all of Scotland and the rest of the UK. Some of my colleagues have been quite critical(£) of how this was done, but this was the way this policy was framed by this civil servant.

The other thing that was quite notable was how the "Scottish Approach" to policy-making shone through. Early on in the talk he stated how the Scottish Government was becoming more and more open to working with communities. Civil servants are now expected to leave their offices and talk to local communities. At the end in the Q&A I asked him what policy levers he had in a devolved polity and the response was that he has a networked polity of actors who the government worked with in partnership to deliver aims. Importantly, and this was emphasised, the focus on outcomes and use of the language of outcomes was seen to enable this. I've been critical of the "outcome focus" in Scotland myself because, as far as I was concerned, what matters is how you reach outcomes, not that you reach them. But, the point was, the Government sees itself as doing policy through others. 

However, one of my students astutely asked whether a Minister might use narrative, or "anecdotal" evidence from a community group or voluntary sector organisation to make a decision, and my colleague Prof. Paul Cairney asked which evidence is higher in the hierarchy when making decisions. The discussion around these question showed that Government still privileges professionally-produced numerical data, even though it might be more open to engagement with communities now.