Evidence, learning and intelligent government: reflections on developments in Scotland.

Author:Sanderson, Ian

1 Introduction

The role of the 'Scottish Enlightenment' in the development of ideas that define the character of our civilization is beyond dispute; in Buchan's view it "shaped the West with its modern scientific and provisional character" and "created a world that headed towards the egalitarian and, within reason, the democratic" (Buchan 2003: 336). The key thinkers in Scotland--Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith, David Hume, Sir John Sinclair, Hugh Blair--were important figures in the wider body of philosophes across Europe who challenged the 'dead hand' of political and religious authority, heralding a period of critical reflection and analysis, of independent thought and sharing of ideas through open discussion and debate (Broadie 2001; Porter 2001). As Porter (2001) argues, the Enlightenment is commonly thought of as a French phenomenon, associated with such thinkers as Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet and Rousseau, but there was a distinctive British contribution reflecting the social, political and economic context of late seventeenth and early eighteenth century Britain, where there was a very practical concern to make new political settlements work and to promote economic growth and prosperity. This practical orientation was particularly strong in Scotland; many of the key figures had links with government, business and commerce and had a focus on improvement and the practical application of their ideas. According to Buchan (2003: 273), "ambition for improvement and ethical earnestness ... combined with what Johnson ... called 'all solid practical experimental knowledge'." Christie (1995) is emphatic about the distinctive contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment:

The Scots, living through a period of visibly rapid economic, social and cultural transformation, realized and faced the meaning of that trans formation earlier and more profoundly than other centers of Enlightenment, and it is in exactly that dialectic tension that the distinctive significance of the Scottish Enlightenment resides (Christie 1995: 481). Important features of the Scottish context were the strength of market processes, a broader involvement of civil society in economic and cultural development and the close association between intellectual, social and political life (Christie 1995). These features can be seen as underpinning its influence and its legacy; the ideas still influence the Scottish outlook and ambition and they still have strong relevance to the contemporary tasks of government. As Grayling argues in relation to the Enlightenment more generally, the legacy "survives in the reliance placed on the public, repeatable and conditional methods of science at their best, and on the idea that responsibility in public affairs is essentially a matter of rationality, evidence, and reflective judgment" (Grayling 2008: xxv). These are challenging times for governments seeking to preserve their credibility and legitimacy while the fundamental tasks become increasingly difficult. The nature of the challenge facing policy makers in government is summarized by Bullock et al. (2001) as follows:

The world for which policy-makers have to develop policies is becoming increasingly complex, uncertain and unpredictable. The electorate is better informed, has rising expectations and is making increasing demands for services tailored to their individual needs. Key policy issues, such as social exclusion and reducing crime, overlap and have proved resistant to previous attempts to tackle them, yet the world is increasingly inter-connected and inter-dependent (Bullock et al. 2001: 15). Lodge and Kalitowski argue that: "Societies are more complex and less governable than ever before" (Lodge and Kalitkowski 2007: 7) and that these trends are undermining the legitimacy of governments. Indeed, Chapman has argued that there is "a perceived crisis in the ability of government to deliver improved performance in key areas of public service" (Chapman 2004: 23) Much has been written by the OECD about the pressures faced by governments in meeting the challenges posed by contemporary society and their efforts at reform (OECD 2005, 2010). It is clear that such reform efforts have not been unambiguously successful; they may have produced efficiency gains but "have not automatically led to better government" (OECD 2003: 2).

On the British context, writing in The Observer, John Gray (2008) has argued that the British state is no longer trusted, "seems no longer fit for any coherent purpose and its authority is slipping away." He presented a damning picture of an 'incompetent state', with accountability and effectiveness undermined by "an apparatus of internal markets and government targets", which has produced "an impenetrable chaos that ministers and watch-dog bodies are unable to control." The response of the present UK government to failures of performance, he argues, is to seek to equip a dysfunctional machine with new powers--a "Canutelike pose." Yet, he argues, "an effective state remains the most important precondition of anything that can be called a liberal society ... Renovating the state is emerging as the political task of the age, for unless it is achieved, no other objective can be realized."

So how do we set about achieving 'better government'? This paper reflects on recent changes in devolved government in Scotland, particularly with the advent in May 2007 of a Scottish Nationalist administration, and focuses on the role of evidence and analysis in promoting 'intelligent government'. This notion is based upon the work of John Dewey and the paper elaborates a framework of underpinning ideas drawing on Dewey's version of pragmatist philosophy and Mark Moore's concept of public value. It is argued that the central themes emerging from this framework are the key role of processes of experimentation, reflective practice and learning, inclusive public deliberation, and a capacity for adaptation and improvement. The second part of the paper, discusses how these themes have emerged in work on governance, regulation, and policy making, and how this literature has identified the key role of capacities for learning, experimentation and deliberation as the basis to achieve effective societal guidance. The third part of the paper discussed recent developments in the approach to policy making in Scotland and the role played by Government Analytical Services and assesses the extent to which movement towards a model of 'intelligent policy making' can be discerned.

2 The Challenge for the Scottish Government

In simple terms the mission for the Scottish Government is to provide effective governance for Scotland in order to increase the well-being of the country and its people, so developing 'better government' is a key concern. However, it is evident that there are significant problems facing Scotland and its people that need to be addressed--for example, the persistence of inequalities in educational achievement and health, the persistence of high levels of deprivation, particularly in parts of Glasgow and the performance of the Scottish economy. Devolved government in Scotland is maturing and increasingly seeking new policy approaches to address these problems. After nearly a decade of devolved government, the election of a minority Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) administration posed a challenge for the policy-making machinery to deliver on high ambitions for Scotland, its economy and the social welfare of its people in a period of constrained public expenditure. The SNP Government defined these ambitions in terms of an over-arching Purpose: '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'. Supporting this Purpose are five strategic objectives, a set of 15 economic and social outcomes and a suite of 45 National Indicators designed to provide the best possible 'proxy representation' of the outcomes. This provides a framework expressing the SNP Government's vision for a better Scotland (Scottish Government 2007) and the Scotland Performs website (1) was developed to provide public access to information on progress towards the outcomes and to fulfill a commitment to full public reporting and accountability.

It is possible to see the strategy of the SNP administration as one of redefining the challenge for government from one of micro-managing delivery, which was seen as the legacy of previous coalition administrations, to one of improving performance in terms of outcomes and public value. However, an outcomes-focused approach presents serious challenges to traditional 'command-and-control' approaches to government and public management (Mayne 2007). In particular, it implies the strengthening of an evidence-based, learning approach to the tasks of government: to understand the effectiveness of existing policies and programs in contributing to the outcomes; to challenge existing commitments on this basis; to develop new, innovative and more effective policy solutions; and to shift resources from demonstrably less effective to potentially more effective interventions in order to realign delivery in pursuit of the Government's desired outcomes and strategic objectives. The development of such a model of policy innovation and learning represents a major challenge for government, one that Lodge and Kalitowski (Lodge and Kalitowski 2007) argue few governments have succeeded in meeting.

Indeed, it has been argued that the traditional centralist, hierarchist political culture in Britain militates against experimentation, innovation and learning (Jowell 2003; Chapman 2004). Jowell points to Britain's centralized political structure and legislative process, and the importance of manifesto commitments in government's programs--"circumstances that do not amount to optimal experimental conditions" (Jowell 2003: 23). With reference to...

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