After decades of work we are still struggling to address inequality in Scottish society and to see a significant improvement for the individuals and communities at its sharpest edge. Why does policy seem so ineffective? I think it has something to do with its inefficiency.
The current model of social policy development has a beautiful, logical, simple elegance. It runs as follows: design an intervention, evidence-based of course, rather than driven by funding opportunities; evaluate it thoroughly, perhaps even in economic terms; prove the intervention works, in terms of measurable outcomes; take your evidence to funders/purchasers/commissioners/procurers, who will recognize that this intervention provides better results for the resources they have available (using the robust benchmarking data they have to hand). They will then withdraw funding from an existing piece of work that has less successful outcomes, and scale and expand the newly proven intervention.
We accept this model as a fundamental given, though many participants recognise it as at best significantly flawed, if not completely false. On a piece of work I have recently been involved in, many hoops have been jumped through. The idea works. It is aligned to the current policy Zeitgeist and strategic plans. It has been evaluated to death, including via substantial economic analysis. To progress further, the team is now driven to behave as some sort of policy version of door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen.
This intervention assists individuals and communities suffering some of our most rampant inequalities in a broad range of positive ways from health and employability outcomes, through to community cohesion and civic participation. To get it ‘mainstreamed’, we have to work madly our contacts and try to convince potential ‘purchasers’ – whether local or national government, discretionary grant funder, philanthropists – to jump on board so that the project starts reaching some scale.
Many a mountain
‘Scale’ is an interesting concept. The original work reached ten vulnerable communities. In order to double its scope, taking it to eight new local authorities (our current aim), we have had over 70 meetings. To reach all 32 authorities and 14 Health Boards – well, as our American colleagues say, ‘You do the math’…
All this promotional activity has to find a place among all the work that needs to be done to keep existing programmes up and running – and in some way, has to be paid for. The time it takes absorbs energy and attention which might otherwise be spent on keeping existing services running. In the current climate, which is one of cumulative layers of Community Planning Partnerships, Integrated Joint Boards and initiatives such as Thriving Places, among many others, Scotland’s policy community is creating more and more complex webs of individuals, organisations and systems that need to be involved before decisions are taken. We have now created a world where motivated and committed individuals cannot collectively influence how public money is spent to really affect outcomes.
This matters, for three major reasons. Firstly, because its expensive: negotiating and persuading takes time and costs money, eating resources that could fund effective interventions. Secondly, because it makes for delay: the time-lag between discovering an effective intervention and getting it to some sort of scale entails real world, day-to-day distress, stress, damage, ill health (and in some cases mortality) of living, breathing human beings. I feel that in accepting such a sluggish model for change we have lost not just our common sense but our moral compass. We have created an environment where many of those expected to implement large scale change inevitably lack the sense of ownership, enthusiasm or understanding of those involved in the original initiative.
The consequence of this is that for decades very many, potentially significant, effective interventions fail to reach scale. The individuals promulgating them run out of funding, or energy. So we reinvent the wheel and go through the loop again, compounding the cost and time involved to make change. Even if some kind of expansion does take place, endless short-term funding cycles will drain its momentum and eventually kill the intervention. This can be very frustrating for all involved.
As a result of the Christie Commission and other bodies, Scotland’s political and policy communities have recognised and accepted that we need to see a radical shift in spending from acute intervention to prevention. Yet nearly everything militates against this: institutional inertia, political discomfort, media responses, vested interests, and innate human discomfort around change and risk.
We, the people
It is tempting to be brave and to offer a solution, but perhaps that might be missing the point completely. A key feature of most recent policy developments has been to involve those affected in the definition, design and resolution of the challenges that face them. A pre-designed response from a policy professional flies in the face of these approaches and would not just be ironic but offensive. So, in outlining a possible way forward, I offer a different type of provocation.
In order to speed up change, can we utilise established and verified methods such as citizens’ juries and ‘people’s panels’ to examine and resolve methods for making speedy financial commitment to evidence-based interventions? Change can often be stymied by real or perceived opposition from local communities. Rather than use citizens’ juries on each and every topic (justice, safety and so on) or at each budgetary decision point, can we mutually agree a process that a community signs up to and which is then implemented on its behalf – with agreed and appropriate engagement? This avoids a massive absorption of time and energy from often very challenged individuals and communities and perhaps also provides a consensual way forward that moves towards a ‘done with’ model, rather than a ‘done to’ model. Once this agreement is in place it might be possible to, if not exactly ‘fast track’ proven interventions, at least implement them with some level of energy and momentum. It might also provide an environment where the principles underlying ‘defunding’ and other difficult choices can be discussed out of the heat of the moment rather than in respect of specific services or functions.
There may be many reasons why this proposal is not the right response. But for humanity’s sake – and for our sanity, too – we need to find one fast.
In 2015 Professor Richard Freeman from the Academy of Government at the University of Edinburgh convened a group to discuss inequality. They found their discussion so useful that they kept meeting and discussing. In 2017 all 22 participants contributed to Working for Equality: Policy, politics, people edited by Richard Freeman, Fiona McHardy and Danny Murphy. The book, from which this extract comes, can be purchased online from www.postcardsfromscotland.co.