Paul Cairney, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, University of Stirling This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Complexity, Problematic Governance, and Limited Accountability in Westminster: the UK can learn lessons from Scotland.

A common argument in British politics is that the UK Government has exacerbated its own ‘governance problem’ by producing a fragmented public landscape. This outcome presents increasing problems for the ‘Westminster model’ if there is a growing sense that no one is accountable because no one is in control. Yet, many aspects of this problem are ‘universal’, relating to the general limits of central control, in complex policymaking systems, which cannot be solved. We need a narrative of accountability that combines Westminster’s political imperative with a pragmatic response to complexity. This paper identifies lessons from Scottish Government policymaking. Scotland’s size, and Westminster-light nature, has allowed its government to be relatively pragmatic. Yet, it has produced a similar problem of unclear accountability. The lesson is that governments face an almost inescapable trade-off between democratic accountability via central government, and institutional accountability via decentralized policymaking.

A common argument in British politics is that the UK Government has exacerbated its own ‘governance problem’. I define the problem as the gap between normative and empirical aspects of the ‘Westminster model’: while policymakers have to maintain the appearance of central control, to legitimise the idea that ministers are accountable to the public via Parliament, in practice their powers are limited. A collection of reforms from the 1980s, many of which were perhaps designed to reassert central government power, has reinforced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. This outcome presents major problems for the Westminster narrative of democratic accountability. If ministers are not in control of their departments, how can we hold them to account in a meaningful way? Or, how can we combine a pragmatic understanding of central government power, based increasingly on the idea of institutional accountability, with a framework that is sufficiently consistent with the Westminster model of democratic accountability?

To some extent, it is misleading to link these developments to specific decisions or points in time, since many aspects of the ‘governance problem’ are universal: policymakers can only pay attention to a small fraction of the issues for which they are responsible; they do not have enough information to make decisions without major uncertainty; policy problems are too multi-faceted and ‘cross-cutting’ to allow policymaking without ambiguity; there is an inescapable logic to delegating decisions to ‘policy communities’ which may not talk to each other or account meaningfully to government; and, delivery bodies will always have discretion in the way they manage competing government demands. There was no ‘golden age of the state’ in which its control over policy outcomes was not in doubt (Peters, 2000: 37).

In this context, policymaking systems can be described usefully as complex systems, in which behaviour is always difficult to predict, and outcomes often seem to emerge in the absence of central control. Further, the literature on complexity contains normative and empirical elements, providing some advice about how governments should operate within complex systems. Unfortunately, much of this literature invites policymakers to give up on the idea that they can control policy processes and outcomes. While this may be a pragmatic response, it does not deal well with the need for elected policymakers to account for their actions; to articulate their values and take responsibility for profound choices that set the tone for government. What seems sensible to one audience may be indefensible to another. In particular, the language of complexity does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style democratic accountability. We may use complexity theory to identify universal issues in complex systems, but struggle to adapt them to very specific expectations in some political systems.

We need a sustainable response to this problem, which sets out a governmental acknowledgement of the limits to its powers, combined with the sense that we can still hold policymakers to account in a meaningful way (Peters, 2000: 49). Ideally, this response should be systematic enough to allow us to predict when ministers will take responsibility for their choices, redirect attention to other accountable public bodies (some of which may be elected), and/ or identify the limited way in which they can be held responsible for certain outcomes. Beyond this ideal, we may settle for a government strategy based on explicit trade-offs between pragmatism, in which governments acknowledge the effect of administrative devolution, and meaningful representation, in which they maintain some responsibility for decisions made in their name.
This paper draws lessons from the ‘Scottish approach’ - a self-styled description of policymaking by the Scottish Government. The Scottish context is comparable enough to the UK to offer lessons. Although much of the rhetoric of ‘new Scottish politics’ suggests that it is markedly different from ‘old Westminster’, it has inherited a Westminster-style focus on government accountability to the public via Parliament. Although Scotland is smaller, and the Scottish Government is able to design a governance style based on greater personal contact with interest groups and public bodies, this only serves to reinforce the importance of the ‘universal’ problems which arise in Scotland and resemble those faced in the UK. Scottish policymaking demonstrates that the ‘governance problem’ cannot be solved completely. Rather, governments face a trade-off between the delegation of administrative functions and the maintenance of central accountability.

To explain these issues, the paper first summarises the main ways in which UK governments have allegedly exacerbated governance problems. Second, it separates this focus on specific outcomes from the universal constraints on central government control in complex policymaking systems. Third, it contrasts the practical advice that arises from a focus on complexity theory with the political imperative to present policy outcomes as the responsibility of ministers. Fourth, it identifies the balance struck between accountability and delegation by the Scottish Government since 2007, and the transferable lessons to Westminster systems.

The governance problem and the Westminster model: more than just a crucial fiction

At the heart of the ‘Westminster model’ is a simple normative message about democratic accountability, based on concepts such as representative democracy, accountability through free and fair elections, parliamentary sovereignty, unitary state, majority party control, cabinet government, and individual ministerial responsibility: power is concentrated in the executive, or in the hands of UK government ministers, who are accountable to the public through Parliament. A reliance on representative democracy and parliamentary supremacy combines with a plurality electoral system, which tends to produce exaggerated single party majorities, a strong ‘whip’ to allow that party to control Parliament, the power of the prime minister to control cabinet and ministers, a politically-neutral and hierarchical civil service making decisions on the anticipation of ministerial wishes, and the absence of a separation of powers between executive/ legislature/ judiciary, to produce a centralised system (Richards and Smith, 2002: 3; Marsh et al, 2001; Rhodes, 1997; Bevir and Rhodes, 1999; Gains and Stoker, 2009).
With this model, power and responsibility go hand in hand since, if you know who is in charge, you know who to reward or punish in the next election. More importantly, the Westminster model reminds us of the wider context of politics and policymaking, such as the role of the state, which exists long after individual governments have risen and fallen, and the normative and ethical principles that underpin politics (Habermas, 1996). While we may focus on the general limits of government action, and specific pragmatic responses, it prompts us not to lose sight of the role of elected governments to challenge or reflect longstanding social values. Democratic accountability has an enduring effect on policy, even if Westminster institutions have no direct role in delivery. Policymakers, when competing for elected public office, articulate value judgements, and make fundamental choices - about which social groups should be rewarded or punished - which have an enduring effect beyond the terms of single elections (Ingram et al, 2007: 112).

Yet, empirically, the Westminster model is generally used as an ideal type, to highlight the lack of central control (Richards and Smith, 2002: 3). Terms such as ‘governance’, ‘multi-level governance’ or Rhodes’ ‘differentiated polity model’, which now serve as shorthand for the accumulated wisdom on UK policymaking, are generally set up in contrast to the Westminster model (Duggett, 2009; Rhodes, 1997; Bache and Flinders, 2004; Marsh, 2008; Kerr and Kettell, 2006: 11). Empirical research focuses on the extent to which the UK has moved further from the ideal type, with an accumulation of government reforms exacerbating a loss of central control. This applies to the Conservative Government from 1979-97 and Labour from 1997-2010, with the latter often accepting or extending the policies, and policy tools, of its predecessor (Richards and Smith, 2006: 187; 2004).

The list of potentially relevant reforms is long, including: privatization (the sale of public assets, break up of state monopolies, injection of competition, introduction of public–private partnerships for major capital projects, and charging for government services); quasi-markets (one part of the public sector competes with another for the ‘business’ of commissioning agencies); reforms to make civil servants more directly accountable; and increased use of
quangos (public bodies sponsored by government, but operating at ‘arms-length’ from elected policymakers and administratively separate from government) (Gray, 2000: 283–4; Rhodes, 1994: 139; Goldsmith and Page, 1997: 150; Day and Klein, 2000; Cairney, 2002; Wistow, 1992; Greer, 2004; O’Toole and Jordan, 1995: 3–5; Greenwood et al, 2001: 153–7; Stoker, 2004: 32).

These administrative reforms, often designed to reinforce central control, are different in nature to the decision by the UK to share or diffuse power upwards, to the European Union, and downwards, in 1999, to devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Indeed, Flinders (2010: 75) argues that the UK Government pursued ‘bi-constitutionality’, or the encouragement of consensus democracy in devolved politics while maintaining the ‘power hoarding’ and ‘majoritarian’ politics associated with the Westminster model.

Normatively, things remain confusing, because policymakers and commentators still rely on the Westminster model to explain or legitimise government decisions (Duggett, 2009; Flinders, 2010). The phrase ‘British Political Tradition’ sums up an often-vague sense that UK governments should centralise power, to allow them to ‘take strong, decisive, necessary action, even when opposed by a majority of the population’ (Blunkett and Richards, 2011: 179). This normative confusion is linked strongly to empirical reality; to the extent to which policymakers believe that central governments can hoard power, and act accordingly.
First, governments may simply try to construct an image of governing competence by making ‘hard choices’ and dominating the legislative process without expecting long term results – a strategy that reminds us of the different - electoral, process, and long term - ways in which governments measure their own success (McConnell, 2012).

Second, they may seek to modify the way that the public holds them to account - by shifting the balance between the state and the market, through privatization, and/ or giving greater responsibility to public bodies as part of a suite of ‘new public management’ reforms (applying private sector ideas to the public sector - Hood, 1995: 94; Common, 1998: 442; James, 2001; Ramia and Carney, 2010; Lodge and Gill, 2011; Goldfinch and Wallis, 2010). For example, one aspect of civil service reform was to encourage institutional accountability; to make civil servants more responsible and accountable for the delivery of public policy. Agencies were separated from, but reported to, government departments; they have chief executives, responsible for policy outcomes and the agency’s ‘value for money’, and subject to the kinds of reward/ punishment systems found in the private sector (Jordan and O’Toole, 1995: 4; Massey, 2001: 21). This aim is less straightforward in health and education, but the delegation of authority to hospitals and schools, coupled with the introduction of league tables and quasi-markets, gave the impression that individual public bodies were responsible for their own success (Day and Klein, 2000: 238-40; Greer and Jarman, 2008).

Third, ministers may be genuinely frustrated with their lack of progress, and seek to reform government to reassert power by, for example: forming quangos to bypass the role of local authorities (as in further education, urban development, training and enterprise and aspects of policing - Greenwood et al, 2001: 157; Stoker, 2004: 32); obliging local authorities to
‘contract out’ the delivery of public services to other bodies; and, constructing regulatory and performance management regimes designed to control public bodies from the centre (Hood, 2007).

Crucially, this confusion contributes to empirical explanation. During the Conservative era, there was no ‘grand theme’ or coherent plan to redraw the boundaries of the state and reform the way in which we hold public bodies and government to account (Hogwood, 1997: 715). Rather, these reforms were a mish-mash of policies explained by events and varying motivations, from the desire to introduce the philosophy of new public management (either to encourage decentralised institutional accountability or reinforce central control), prompt public bodies to become more efficient or more responsive to the users of their services, raise revenue or reduce borrowing, and challenge totemic public bodies such as local authorities. The Labour Government from 1997 mostly reinforced this mixed approach and pursued a combination of policymaking designed to reassert central control or enhance the ‘local autonomy’ of delivery bodies, with no coherent sense of the links between those aims (Richards and Smith, 2006: 187).

Consequently, a more institutional form of accountability has only developed to some extent, such as when: the Bank of England took control for monetary policy (1997); or, chief executives of government agencies took responsibility for operational decisions, allowing ministers to reject the historic idea that they should resign whenever anything went wrong in their departments (‘sacrificial accountability’), to decide whether to simply redirect queries to other bodies, keep Parliament informed routinely of public body activities, explain problems, or promise to intervene (Judge et al, 1997: 97).
Still, the role of government, or a meaningfully accountable alternative, is often unclear, such as when: Parliament is unable to directly scrutinise the work of government agencies (Gains and Stoker, 2009: 9); governments rely on private or third sector bodies for the success of policy delivery; or the ‘quango state’ (Flinders and Skelcher, 2012) becomes so convoluted that governments are prompted periodically to reform the public sector to re-inject clarity (Richards and Smith, 2004; Cairney, 2009: 359). The accountability landscape remains unclear when ministers devolve decisions to public bodies, with their own means to demonstrate institutional accountability, but also intervene, in an ad hoc way, to deal with institutional crises (Gains and Stoker, 2009: 11).

This mix of outcomes prompted academic debate about the extent to which the UK state was ‘hollowing out’, or increasingly unable to influence policy outcomes without the aid of a range of other bodies (Rhodes, 1994; 1997; Bevir and Rhodes, 2003: 6), or ‘rejuvenated’, and able to return to core competencies after shuffling off peripheral functions of the state, with ‘the centre making strategic decisions and creating accountability mechanisms to ensure that these are carried out by others’ (Cairney, 2012a: 160; Hogwood, 1997; Holliday, 2000; Marinetto; 2003; Marsh, Richards and Smith, 2003: 308; Richards and Smith, 2006: 182).

To some extent, this debate could also be found within government, with Labour governments unsure about whether to recognise their limitations and foster policymaking through networks with public bodies and interest groups (the initial strategy from 1997), or try to reassert central control through targets and performance management mechanisms coordinated by the Treasury (from 2001) (Richards and Smith, 2004: 106).

The general governance problem: central control in complex policymaking systems

Instead of a grand, rational, theme to ensure central government control, we can identify a patchwork of reforms to respond to a lack of control or the unintended consequences of reforms. This is not unusual. Most countries have faced crises of regulation that call into question the coordinative capacity of governments (Lodge and Weigrich, 2012: 27). Many have a similar concern that policymakers at the ‘top’ should, but do not, control policy implementation (Hill and Hupe, 2009: 29). What marks out the UK, or Westminster systems, is the way in which policymakers respond to a lack of central control, not the lack of control itself (Peters and Pierre, 2004: 78).

Theoretically, these issues can be clarified when we separate the time and place-specific governance problems in the UK from the constraints to central control that we would find in any policymaking system. When combined, the following ‘universal’ elements challenge the language we use – such as ‘joined up government’ - to suggest that central government can coordinate and control policy outcomes (Cairney, 2015: 4; 2012c; 2014a):

Bounded rationality. The cognitive ability of policymakers, and their ability to gather information, is limited. They can only pay attention to a small fraction of the issues for which they are responsible. They have to ignore most and promote a few to the top of their agenda (Baumgartner and Jones, 1993; 2009). Consequently, we exaggerate central control when we focus on the issues to which they pay attention and seek to solve.

Institutional inheritance and path dependence. Events and decisions made in the past contributed to the formation of institutions that influence current practices (Pierson, 2000). Institutions represent the rules that encourage or oblige certain types of policy-making behaviour (Ostrom, 2007). Most policy decisions are based on legislation that already exists, most public expenditure is devoted to activities that continue by routine, and policy implementation continues long after policymakers have lost interest (Rose, 1990; Hogwood and Peters, 1983; Lindblom, 1959; 1979; Lipsky, 1980). Boundedly rational policymakers may challenge some aspects but inherit and reinforce most.

The logic of policy communities and silos. Most policy is conducted through small and specialist policy communities that process technical issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public or parliament, with minimal ministerial or senior civil service involvement, and often with minimal exchange between each other. These arrangements exist because there is a logic to devolving decisions and consulting with certain affected interests. Ministers rely on their officials for information and advice. For specialist issues, those officials rely on specialist organisations. Organisations trade that information or advice, and other resources such as the ability to implement policy or command a large group membership, for access to and influence within government (Jordan and Maloney, 1997; Marsh and Rhodes, 1992)

Context, events, socioeconomic factors. Policymakers operate in an environment that is largely not in their control. They respond to often-changing policy conditions relating to a political system’s geography, biophysical and demographic profile; economy; and, mass attitudes and behaviour. They respond to events, and many are difficult to anticipate, including social, global or natural crises, major scientific breakthroughs and technological change (Hogwood, 1992: 191–208; Weible, 2014).
Ideas. Ideas are the beliefs that underpin attention to, and ways of thinking about, policy problems. They can act as constraints to policy change, as the paradigms inhibiting new ways of thinking (Hall, 1993). Policymakers, faced with uncertainty (a limited ability to gather evidence) and ambiguity (the potential to understand problems in many ways) rely on well-established ways of thinking. In only a small number of cases, new ideas or solutions can be used to promote change – particularly following policy failures that produce major transformations in the way that policymakers think and act (Hall, 1993; Cairney, 2012a: 228–232; Kingdon, 1984, 1995)

These elements are used by most major theories to explain the limits to policymaker control (Cairney and Heikkila, 2014), but one – complexity theory – stands out because its application to public administration combines empirical and normative elements.i It suggests that policymaking systems share features with complex systems in the natural and social world, including:

  • ‘non-linear dynamics’ when some forms of action are amplified and others dampened, by positive and negative feedback – such as when the same information receives no, or disproportionately, high attention;
  • ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ and the cumulative effect of early decisions and events – such as the development of ‘path dependent’ institutions;
  • ‘strange attractors’ or regularities of behaviour despite the unpredictability of complex systems – such as the rules that develop in institutions or policy communities, which could be challenged at any time, but are not; and
  • ‘emergence’ in the absence of central control, such as when ‘street level bureaucracies’ interact with local service users (Cairney, 2012b; Cairney and Geyer, 2015).

The phrase ‘greater than the sum of its parts’ is used to reject the ‘reductionist’ idea that one can understand, and seek to control, a system by breaking it down into its constituent parts to identify discrete independent and dependent variables and demonstrate simple cause and effect. Rather, these variables interact, to cause different effects at different times.
How should governments address these problems?

When applied to policy, complexity theory comes with a set of broad lessons and recommendations (Teisman and Klijn, 2008: 288; Blackman, 2001; Cairney, 2012b: 349; Kernick, 2006; Sanderson, 2006; 2009). First, if law-like behaviour is difficult to identify, don’t be surprised that a policy that was successful in one context may not have the same effect in another. Second, if systems have ‘self-organising capacities’ (Teisman and Klijn, 2008: 288-9; Bovaird, 2008: 320; Mitleton-Kelly, 2003: 41), making them difficult to control, don’t be surprised that policy interventions from the centre do not have the desired effect. Third, if the environment in which policymakers operate is unstable and can change rapidly, be in the position to adapt quickly and not rely on a single policy strategy (Teisman and Klijn, 2008: 289; Mitleton-Kelly, 2003: 35–6). Overall, if you deny your reliance on other actors to help you understand and adapt to your policy-making environment, you are doomed to make the same mistakes as your predecessors (compare with Bevir and Rhodes, 2003: 6).

Broadly speaking, we can identify a rejection of attempts to centralise power and make policy from the ‘top down’ – but what should policymakers do instead? The general tone of complexity theory is that central government policymakers should embrace interdependence, to pursue more pragmatic solutions based on increasing the freedom of local actors to learn and adapt to environmental signals, such as the responses they get from service users (Cairney, 2012b: 353-4; Geyer and Rihani, 2010: 7; 32–4; Sanderson, 2009: 708; Haynes, 2008: 326; compare with Le Grand, 2003 on treating public servants as ‘knights’ or ‘knaves’). To address the ever-presence of uncertainty, they should make greater use of ‘“trial and error” policy making’ and learn from pilot projects (Sanderson, 2009: 707; 2006: 118). To address the inevitable gap between policymaker aims, and actual outcomes, they should reframe the idea of ‘failure to meet targets’, to focus on the likely degree of ‘error’ when they design policies (Little, 2012: 16). They should design flexible performance measures that do not simply blame delivery bodies for outcomes out of their control (Geyer, 2012: 32). In other words, they should reject the idea of central control – to deliver policies themselves or direct others to do so – in favour of a more pragmatic strategy.

This language of complexity and pragmatism resonates with other studies which explore new forms of accountability, based less on hierarchy and central targets, and more on the value of public services to users or the ‘co-production’ of services with users (Gains and Stoker, 2009; Osborne and Strokosch, 2013; Smith and Smyth, 2010: 277-8). However, it does not mix well with the language of Westminster-style democratic accountability (Bevir and Rhodes, 2006: 683; Gains and Stoker, 2009)
This problem is not necessarily intractable. ‘State centric’ governments exist to manage competing pressures in society, make fundamental value-based choices between competing priorities, and account for their choices – but could also accept their limitations when they seek to translate aims into outcomes (Peters, 2000: 48-9; Richards and Smith, 2006: 184). Still, governments face a major dilemma when combining normative aims with practical reality.

Much depends on extent to which central governments believe they have to pretend that they are in control and accountable for all actions made on their behalf. If they have found new ways to reinvigorate the ‘Westminster supermodel’, they can focus on their strengths (Duggett, 2009; Marsh, Smith and Richards, 2003). Our focus may shift to mix of ‘tools’ that governments can use to gather and distribute information, exploit their authority, use public expenditure, and control or steer public bodies to secure policy outcomes (Hood and Margetts, 2007). Or, if their powers are highly limited – and they don’t even have sufficient
information to ‘map’ the public sector of which they are ostensibly in charge (Flinders and Skelcher, 2012: 329) - they may feel the need to produce ‘stories’ of central control to rationalise their behaviour (Rhodes 2013: 486-8). Further, these stories may be counterproductive – such as when the drive to retake direct departmental control of quangos, to further the idea of greater democratic accountability, undermines the transparency of quangos and their institutional accountability (Flinders and Skelcher, 2012: 332). In the UK, there has proved to be no ‘one best way’ to address the trade-off between democratic and institutional accountability.

Can Scottish Government provide more positive lessons?

Scotland remains part of the ‘Westminster family’ and has upheld many of its traditions or inherited many of its constraints (Cairney and Johnston, 2014). It inherited the assumption that ‘the government governs’ and that democratic accountability to the public takes place regularly through the relationship between ministers and Parliament, and periodically through elections. As in Westminster, the ability of the Scottish Parliament to scrutinise government policy is limited, while mechanisms other than elections for direct, popular participation are marginal to the policy process (Cairney, 2011). As in the UK, most policy is processed in ‘territorial policy communities’ (Keating, Cairney and Hepburn, 2009). Scotland also inherited a large and complicated public sector landscape, consisting of government agencies, quangos, local authorities, health boards, and service delivery organisations in the third and private sector – and it has an extensive regulatory and audit function to address this proliferation of bodies and arrangements (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013).

It is in this context that we should understand the distinctive style of policymaking in Scotland. The Scottish Government has developed a reputation for positive consultation and governance styles: an open and accessible approach to consultation; and, a relative ability or willingness to devolve the delivery of policy to other organisations in a meaningful way. Its style is influenced by its size or scale, which allows relatively close personal relationships to develop between key actors, and closer links to develop across departmental ‘silos’. The low capacity of the Scottish Government also prompts civil servants to rely more, for information, advice and support, on experts outside of government and the actors who will become responsible for policy implementation. In contrast, UK government policies travel further distances and they make greater attempts to control far more organisations, with less scope for personal relationships (Keating, 2010; Cairney, 2008; 2009a; 2011a; 2011b; 2013a; 2014).
Richards and Smith (2006: 181) suggest that the problematic trade-off between centralisation and delegation is partly solved in devolved systems when they delegate political and administrative powers to local authorities. Yet, this does not sum up the Scottish experience. Administrative devolution has not been matched by political devolution (McAteer, 2005). Instead, the Scottish Government maintains overall responsibility to make key choices, on how funding is shared between devolved services – including health, education, local government, housing, and justice – and how to balance priorities in these fields.
To this end, the Scottish Government (2007; 2014a) has, since 2007, maintained a broad National Performance Framework (NPF), and ‘ten year vision’. The NPF has a stated ‘core purpose - to create a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth’. It seeks to turn this broad purpose into specific policies and long term measures of success. It articulates in more depth its national approach via a ‘purpose framework’ - linked to targets gauging its economic growth, productivity, labour market participation, population, income inequality, regional inequality and (emissions based) sustainability - and five ‘strategic objectives’:

  1. Wealthier and Fairer - Enabling businesses and people to increase their wealth and more people to share fairly in that wealth.
  2. Healthier - Helping people to sustain and improve their health, especially in disadvantaged communities, ensuring better, local and faster access to health care.
  3. Safer and Stronger - Helping communities to flourish, becoming stronger, safer places to live, offering improved opportunities and a better quality of life.
  4. Smarter. Expanding opportunities to succeed from nurture through to lifelong learning ensuring higher and more widely shared achievements.
  5. Greener. Improving Scotland's natural and built environment and the sustainable use and enjoyment of it.

These objectives are mapped onto sixteen ‘National Outcomes’ and fifty ‘National Indicators’, including:

  • Health - Increase physical activity; Improve self-assessed general health; Improve mental wellbeing; Reduce premature mortality; Reduce emergency admissions to hospital; Reduce the percentage of adults who smoke; Reduce alcohol related hospital admissions; Reduce the number of individuals with problem drug use; Reduce reconviction rates.
  • Poverty - Reduce the proportion of individuals living in poverty; improve access to suitable housing options for those in housing need; Improve the skill profile of the population.
  • Early Years - Increase the proportion of pre-school centres receiving positive inspection reports; Improve levels of educational attainment; Reduce children's deprivation; Increase the proportion of young people in learning, training or work; Improve children's services; Improve children's dental health; Increase the proportion of babies with a healthy birth weight; Increase the proportion of healthy weight children
  • Environment - Reduce Scotland's carbon footprint; Increase the proportion of journeys to work made by public or active transport; Reduce waste generated.

It works with local authorities to produce ‘Single Outcomes Agreements’ (SOAs). The SOAs are produced in line with the NPF’s overall vision and strategic objectives, but local authorities can determine the balance between a range of priorities and how they will meet these objectives (Keating, 2010: 123-4; Matthews, 2014).

The spirit of the Scottish Government’s Concordat with the Convention of Scottish Local authorities (COSLA) suggests that the former will not seek to micromanage local authorities or use external scrutiny and funding to produce compliance with short term targets (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 139-40; Cairney, 2011a: 130). Instead, the Scottish Government encourages local authorities to cooperate with a range of other bodies in the public sector, including health, enterprise, police, fire and transport, via established ‘Community Planning Partnerships’ (CPPs), which encourage ‘community engagement’ and engagement with the third and private sectors, to produce a ‘shared strategic vision for an area and a statement of common purpose’ and meaningful long term outcomes (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 139-40).

This broad ‘Scottish approach’ (Scottish Government and ESRC, 2013) also includes a commitment to shifting the balance between reactive/ preventative policies, summed up in its phrase ‘achieving a decisive shift to prevention’ (addressing inequalities and reducing demand for reactive or acute level services by providing effective services at an earlier stage – Cairney and St Denny, 2014). Its agenda was furthered by the ‘Christie Commission’, established by the Scottish Government to examine how to reduce social and economic inequalities, improve ‘social and economic wellbeing’ and spend less money, in the context of limited success on all three measures since devolution. To do so requires: redirecting spending towards preventative policies in a major way; changing its relationship with delivery bodies; addressing a lack of joint working in the public sector, caused partly by separate budgets and modes of accountability; and, engaging ‘communities’ in the design and delivery of public services, rather than treating them as ‘passive recipients of services’ (Commission of the Future Delivery of Public Services, 2011).

Christie recommends a ‘bottom-up’ approach to policy delivery, encouraging local public bodies to work with ‘communities’, ‘personalise’ service delivery by encouraging service users to negotiate the details of their care, training ‘kinship’ carers, to reduce the need for cared-for people to use expensive public services, foster social networks to address the mental health effects of isolation, create partnerships with specialist third sector bodies, and explore the value of organisations such as community development trusts.

The Scottish Approach as an ideal type: does it solve the governance problem?

Viewed through the lens of Westminster politics, the idea of a ‘Scottish approach’ allegedly solves many of the problems associated with the worst excesses of UK policymaking:

  • an open and accessible consultation style maximises the gathering of information and advice, fosters group ownership, and reduces the ambiguity associated with problem definition;
  • the formation of relationships with public bodies and other organisations delivering services, based on trust, fosters the production of common aims across the public sector, and addresses the unintended consequences of top-down policymaking based on rejecting the need for networks;
  • the production of a strategic framework for the public sector balances an image of democratic accountability with the pursuit of administrative devolution, through partnership agreements with local authorities, the formation of community planning partnerships, and the encouragement of community and user-driven design of public services;
  • a national framework with cross-cutting aims, which gives ministers departmental spanning responsibilities, reduces traditional silos (Elvidge, 2013); and,
  • an “‘outcomes-focused approach presents serious challenges to traditional ‘command-and-control’ approaches to government” in favour of ‘an evidence-based, learning approach’ (Sanderson, 2011: 65).

In other words, Scotland may have the consistent ‘grand theme’ that is lacking in the history of UK Government reform. Of course, this is an exaggeration of the Scottish experience. At most, it is an ideal to live up to. At least, it can be used as an ideal-type, in which we identify its essential elements, to help us perform the same comparison between rhetoric and reality that we find in the UK literature on the Westminster model. Further, this comparison allows us to track the effects of two separate, and potentially contradictory, frames of reference for policymakers – the Westminster model, highlighting the role of democratic accountability, and the Scottish approach, highlighting the role of pragmatism and the balance between democratic and institutional forms of accountability. The focus is on Scotland, but policymakers in the UK may learn about the extent to which they can share power, responsibility and accountability without undermining their policy aims or electoral chances. In these terms, the Scottish Government experience often exhibits problems that are comparable to those of the UK:

Problematic parliamentary scrutiny undermines democratic accountability. The Scottish Parliament lacks the ability to gather information independently. While it can oblige Scottish ministers to attend meetings to provide information, it does not get enough information about what is going on locally. Scotland lacks the top-down performance management system that we associate with the UK Government, and a greater focus on long term local outcomes removes an important and regular source of information on public sector performance. Local authorities also push back against calls for information, arguing that they have their own elections and mandates. More administrative devolution exacerbates this tension between local and national accountability.

Incomplete local devolution produces uncertain accountability. Although the Scottish Government’s reputation suggests that it has a better relationship with local authorities, the frame of reference is the UK. Analysis within Scotland over time suggests local actors may see this relationship differently. For example, compare statements by different COSLA Presidents: in 2007, Pat Watters talked about local government now having greater responsibility and ‘the freedom and flexibility to respond effectively to local priorities’

(Cairney, 2011a: 130). In 2014, David O’Neill (2014) argued that, ‘Over the decades, we’ve seen a culture in which more and more services and decisions been taken away from local communities and put into the hands of distant bureaucracies’. The Scottish Government has secured political control and accountability by maintaining a local government system that is highly centralised by European standards, with a small number of local authorities (32, with an average of 165000 people per authority) which depend on the Scottish Government for (effectively) over 80% of their funding (McAteer, 2015).
Scotland shares with the UK a catch-22: a reluctance to devolve powers completely to local authorities with a relatively weak mandate (based on low electoral turnout); and a recognition that such a mandate may not arise unless local authorities have more powers. This problem has not been solved by the promotion of CPPs, since local authorities are expected to work in equal partnership with unelected bodies – not to direct them or hold them to account. Rather, ultimate responsibility still rests with Scottish ministers even though it has delegated decision-making to community partners.

The process of administrative devolution has no clear end point. In practice, the Scottish Government has two potentially contradictory ‘policy styles’: its focus on further devolved governance may undermine its focus on maintaining national policy communities. Most Scottish policy is processed by civil servants and most ‘lobbying’ to the Scottish Government is done by (a) other parts or types of Government and (b) professional and interest groups – representing local authorities, local authority professions, the medical and health professions, businesses, business groups, the third sector, and so on. When policy is made in Scotland, groups organise at that level – establishing bases in or near Edinburgh and spending their time in consultation with civil servants. The Scottish Government is a key hub for policy relationships; it upholds cross-sectoral values, coordinates networks, referees disputes, and gathers information and advice at a central level.

One consequence of devolving more power locally is that these groups must reorganize, to shift from lobbying one national government to 32 local governments. It produces new winners and losers. The well-resourced professional groups can adapt their multi-level lobbying strategies, while the groups working on a small budget, with one or two members of paid staff, only able to lobby the Scottish Government, struggle. Another consequence is that we do not know how the process ends. There is no guide to its completion or to when we will know how to balance democratic and institutional accountability.
One solution to this problem is to develop local participatory capacity, to perform the functions of national organizations (ERS Scotland, 2013) but Scotland has a very limited track record in this area (Cairney and McGarvey, 2013: 103-4). There is also some scope to develop a form of user-driven public service accountability, separate from the electoral process - but, as in the UK, it is difficult to tell how that process fits into the wider picture of democratic accountability (often driven by regulation and inspection).

Conclusion: transferable lessons

The Scottish experience informs UK studies. The Scottish approach seems to have the ‘grand theme’ that is lacking in the history of UK Government reform. It provides a narrative of accountability that combines Westminster’s political imperative with a pragmatic response to complexity. Ministers are responsible to Parliament for a cross-government strategy, which sets out very broad priorities, and provides a frame of reference for public bodies. The National Performance Framework translates into a series of local Single Outcome Agreements, to be produced by local authorities as part of Community Planning Partnerships.

It pursues a consultation and governance style designed to foster ‘ownership’ among stakeholders and public bodies rather than impose top-down policymaking. Ministers devolve administrative responsibility to local public bodies, as positive response to complex government and the need to let local actors adapt to their environments, but retain ultimate control of, and accountability for, this process.

Yet, the Scottish experience does not quite live up to this ideal-type. Instead, we see that the Scottish Government wrestles with the desire to pursue a pragmatic policymaking style with a political imperative to centralise control and secure manifesto commitments. The Westminster model’s frame of reference is still important even in a devolved territory built on the rhetoric of ‘new Scottish politics’ and a rejection of ‘old Westminster’. Consequently, there is always the potential to produce the worst of both worlds. All political parties maintain the fiction of ministerial accountability to the public via Parliament, even though the ability of Parliament to scrutinise policy is limited by its resources and a low willingness of MSPs in any party to challenge government on the details of policy. The Scottish Government devolves administrative responsibility to Community Planning Partnerships, but maintains a relatively centralist relationship with local authorities and has centralised many public bodies. It has made no moves to transfer accountability in a meaningful way, since local authorities have their own mandates but are asked increasingly to work in partnership with a large number of unelected public bodies (reporting, ultimately, to ministers) and stakeholders in the third and private sectors. Potentially, the overall result is problematic scrutiny and incomplete local devolution, with no sense of who is responsible for each aspect of public policy or when we will know that the process of reform is complete.

Overall, the problems associated with these trade-offs are universal, relating to the inevitable tensions that arise when central governments have responsibility but limited control over local policy outcomes. We may recognise that policy often emerges despite central control, but still want to know how governments are dealing with their limitations and balancing their aims. Even in Scotland, this is not clear because governments have two competing aims that often seem to be contradictory. They want to let go, to respond to complexity, but have to maintain a Westminster-style narrative linked to their role at the heart of politics and the need to account for their actions. An image of governing competence may help governments win re-election, but this may depend more on demonstrating a ‘firm hand’ on the public sector than an ability to let local actors go their own way.

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Although it is important not to exaggerate its coherence – there are many complexity theories, or theorists with different ideas.