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The Leadership and Management of Public Services Reform in Scotland

Published: 4 September 2020

John Connolly and Robert Pyper, University of the West of Scotland, explore the challenges of public service reform in Scotland and address to what extent opportunities for effective national public leadership have been missed since the SNP came into government in 2007. 

Based upon extensive empirical research, our chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics unpacks the challenges of public service reform in Scotland and addresses the extent to which opportunities for engendering effective national public value leadership and management have been missed since 2007. Our chapter shows how the prevailing, generally positive, establishment orthodoxy on public service reform in Scotland should be approached with some caution.

In our chapter, we argue that an aversion to coordinated structural reform of the public services by the Scottish Government led to ad hoc experimentations which produced an ‘empowerment-heavy’ approach to governance reform. Localism should be encouraged, but it should also be supported. The lack of evidence of the latter has meant that key reform developments in ‘sharing services’ and ‘integrated public services’ were not managed in such a way as to effectively embed commitments to broader strategic reform in the interests of enhanced service delivery and mitigating the impacts of austerity. The cumulative result has been initiative overload through the spawning of a plethora of units and cross-cutting task forces and, ultimately, the attempt to manage public services reform primarily in the centralised form of a National Performance Framework (NPF).

This approach has limited the required transparency, accountability and improved service delivery at an operational level, and failed to provide strategic coherence in the leadership context. There has been no appetite for the challenge of a holistic, strategic overhaul of the public services landscape, and, as has been made clear repeatedly by leading figures in these administrations, the focus of the post-2007 governments in Scotland has been primarily on the independence question, over public sector leadership.

It is in this context that the current concern for public value emerged. Public value has become the centre of major academic debates, which have gravitated around the extent to which it is a distinctly new paradigm, superseding new public management (NPM). The strategies, processes and mechanisms for pursuing public value in a network governance context, from a national leadership perspective, are inextricably linked to macro-political interests regarding ‘how best’ to reform the public sector in order for outcomes (or values) to be achieved. For Scotland, the approach to public value leadership has been to define public value through the language of ‘national outcomes’ which have been set out within the National Performance Framework.

This is based upon implementing a localism-focused ‘empowerment’ model of political leadership whereby the NPF necessitates network governance actors operating at meso-levels (e.g. in partnership contexts via health authorities, police services, and local government) to be the agents or catalysts of public value leadership and management – with integration efforts by these agents centring on creating public value in line with national outcomes. We highlight how a ‘hard’ empowerment-focused leadership approach by the Scottish Government led to missed opportunities for achieving public value leadership as a consequence of governance deficits between the macro-level (Scottish Government) and meso-levels, and the exacerbation of this by ongoing national policy distraction towards constitutional affairs (the Scottish ‘independence question’).

We maintain that the empowerment approach to public service leadership has created crippling structural complexities which, taken together, have resulted in the impairment of public value leadership and management. We question the extent to which effective public value leadership and management is possible for public managers operating within such an environment (notwithstanding the challenges of austerity).

The network governance literature highlights the dangers of poor governance in terms of the risks of fuzzy accountabilities and blame-gaming, as well as increased transaction costs because of forced partnership-working. Increasing localism (in Scotland, styled as ‘community empowerment’), fragmentary policy systems, and structural reforms (including the acute impact of austerity) have also featured in public administration developments in England and Wales, yet what differentiates Scotland is the acute level of policy focus upon constitutional matters specifically, the ongoing focus on the case for Scottish independence, leading to ‘policy distraction’ and, ultimately, adversely affecting network governance. Our fundamental argument about the lost opportunity to strategically reform Scotland’s public services landscape in the devolved government era, and the negative impacts of post-2007 policy distraction has been given additional weight by further growing evidence of sub-optimal performance and outright failure in a range of spheres (all of which have occurred after our chapter was written) .

In the health service, the Edinburgh Royal Hospital for Sick Children, due to open in 2017, remained closed amidst rapidly mounting costs three years later due to serious safety concerns. The initial responses to the Covid 19 crisis in Scotland in the spring of 2020, including the first outbreak of the virus in Edinburgh, and the subsequent decision-making around discharging elderly patients from the hospital sector back into care homes, without testing, were seriously flawed by any objective standards.

Capital infrastructure commissioning failings and mismanagement were not limited to the health service, as the sorry saga of the abortive construction of the new CalMac ferries in the Ferguson Marine shipyard showed. The long-standing comparatively poor performance of the education system was cast in a disturbing new light by the mismanagement of the SQA examination results crisis of August 2020.

These and other examples, all supported by independent audit evidence, are indicative of a Scottish public services system in need of dedicated, strategic attention. Obviously all governments face crises and entrenched policy issues but Scotland, post-devolution, has had the unique opportunity to augment a public service architecture which properly empowers agencies and local government to work in a coordinated fashion and in a way which embeds national support for building evaluative capacities to enable the progress towards the NPF outcomes to be demonstrated meaningfully. This has been a missed opportunity and one which undermines the comparative approaches to national public services reform in Scotland.

John Connolly is a Professor of Public Policy, and Robert Pyper is Emeritus Professor of Government and Public Policy, both at the University of the West of Scotland. 

'The Leadership and Management of Public Services Reform in Scotland' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 


Photo by Samuel Scalzo on Unsplash

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