Thursday, 13 August 2009

Prof Richard Kerley on the Scottish Govt's Strategic Objectives

In the recent edition of Public Servant Scotland vice principal of QMU and CSPP director, Professor Richard Kerley, questioned whether or not the Scottish Government’s five strategic objectives assist the public sector in “making strategic choices”.

Since the election of the SNP Government in 07’ the strategic objectives (wealthier and fairer; safer and stronger; smarter; greener; and healthier) have become political commandments across Scottish politics. As Prof Kerley says, “All policies and programme proposals would be judged against the extent to which they helped to achieve these objectives”.

Kerley makes several observations about these objectives. Firstly, he correctly points out that by the time we reach May 2011 (date of next parliamentary elections) the Scottish Govt’s response when asked to judge the strategic objectives (SO) will be “too soon to tell”. They are “long term objectives that do not lend themselves to short term judgment”.

And secondly, if the SO are a “pretty good shortlist” and represent “broadly shared desirable outcomes” do they help anyone in “making strategic choices”? Does it set a broad direction for all public agencies and stakeholders to follow? Kerley remains skeptical:

“Just calling something strategic does not make it so…. Decision makers need guidance - not rote templates - as to how they make choices between various options for resource allocation. Without such clear guidance then the game to be played by all organisations will be how they can best present their special case as meeting these objectives”.

Clearly he has a point. The dominant language is the SO with its accompanying 15 national outcomes and 45 national indicators. Public agencies’ proposals are awash with this hegemonic discourse, revealing an “almost hypnotic quality”.

But is this a bad thing? Simplifying government speak, indeed creating a degree of uniformity, isn’t this to be welcomed? Undeniably Kerley is correct - decision makers do need more guidance. But if the strategic framework set out by the Govt is appropriate and fitting shouldn’t it remain in place regardless of which party holds the levers of power? Semantic maneuverings aside, could any political party in Scotland reject the Govt’s single overarching purpose to increase sustainable economic growth?

Of course they could. Our combative political, dog-eat-dog political culture is in anathema to such consensual notions as the first ten years of the Scottish Parliament validate. The existence of a minority government seems to have affected this social fact little which is deeply unfortunate as the example of Finland demonstrates the value of cross-party consensus.

During the 1990’s Finland was transformed from an “inward looking agricultural economy” into an “open, internationally competitive and technology oriented economy, with a solid macro-economic stability and an exemplary social safety” (Angel Gurcia, OECD Secretary General). Central to this transformation was an innovation based economic strategy and strong political leadership.

Let us focus only on the former. Cohesion between Government and opposition parties (and also between industry and workers) contributed massively to economic recovery and sustained growth. A cross-party commitment was made by all - in the depths of the crisis - as they put the country’s economic woes before their political ambitions, thus creating a general economic policy “centred on the growth of its telecommunications cluster”.

The contrast with developments north and south of the border in the UK could not be starker.

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