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by James Mitchell
26 March 2024
It's time to acknowledge the dysfunctional decision-making at the heart of the Scottish Government

St Andrew's House, the HQ of the Scottish Government | Alamy

It's time to acknowledge the dysfunctional decision-making at the heart of the Scottish Government

The final report from the Commission on the Centre of Government, set up by the Institute for Government (IfG), concluded that 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and Treasury are incapable of meeting the challenges facing the country and that a more strategic centre is needed. It is an important contribution to a debate with no equivalent in Scotland today.

The SNP introduced some positive changes in the operation at the centre of the Scottish Government when it first came to office, but the situation has since significantly deteriorated. The SNP cabinet in 2007 consisted of a small group of ministers with hinterlands and experiences outside politics, who debated issues rigorously under a strong first minister. This can work well with a strong team of cabinet ministers. It does not work with a domineering first minister and a weak team. It works even less well with a weak first minister and a weak cabinet.

In recent times, the Scottish Government has gone for quantity over quality in its ministerial team. Over 40 per cent of SNP MSPs now hold ministerial office. It is not difficult to see why a first minister might want so many ministers. The patronage involved is a powerful carrot to dangle before backbenchers and contributes to the imbalanced relations between government and parliament that suits the first minister.

It is doubtful if an executive cabinet committee of the kind the IfG recommends for London is needed in Scotland though informal kitchen cabinets are common enough.  What does require attention is the role of special advisers (Spads) at the heart of the Scottish Government. It is difficult to see the need for 17 Spads in Edinburgh, any more than there is a need for 117 Spads in London. There will always be spin doctors and party appointees but marginalising policy analysis among this unaccountable group who wield significant power ought to be a concern.

A key theme in the IfG report is the need for more strategic thinking and priority setting. The is also true in Scotland. While there has been welcome reference to a wellbeing economy (though much of this is evasive waffle) this cannot be divorced from growing the economy, a matter too long neglected. Those who focus on the proportion of taxes raised in Scotland as some measure of autonomy all too often seem unaware that increased economic responsibility comes with fiscal autonomy. Without a thriving economy and tax base, Scotland will struggle to pay for the increasing demands for public services. 

A wellbeing economy is one with well-paid, secure and satisfying jobs that contribute to the health and wellbeing of the employed who, in turn, contribute through their taxes to public services. There is little doubt that the Scottish Government’s capacity in this area needs to be addressed.

The IfG report noted that the UK centre had not “adapted to the consequences of devolution for its own role”, a point made by this author two decades ago following research on Devolution and the Centre. It has taken too long for this to be acknowledged. But the same applies in Scotland where there is a desperate need for greater involvement of local and regional interests and expertise.

As the IoG report stated: “A confident and well-organised centre should be able to set direction for its own priorities, understand how those are reflected in the varying powers and responsibilities at different levels of government, and ultimately get out of the way of delivery in local and devolved government.” The Scottish Government should take heed and would do well to go further and allow more scope to set priorities locally.

Delivering a speech is not the same as delivering improved outcomes but reflects a crude understanding of policy improvement that assumes that delivering a speech is the same as delivering policy outcomes. This is an all-too-common affliction among ministers who then blame others when things go wrong.

The failure to take account of the complexities involved in delivering improved outcomes lies at the heart of much policy failure in recent years. This is what happens when governing becomes subverted by constant campaigning. Politicians will always campaign but the relationship between campaigning and governing has become imbalanced at a cost to public services.

The centre of the Scottish Government today has become dysfunctional. We may not follow all recommendations in Scotland in the IfG report, but we should at least as a first step acknowledge there is a problem.

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