What is ‘the Scottish approach’ ?


Zoe Ferguson, former Chief Researcher in the Scottish Government, provides a brief outline of ‘the Scottish approach’ to policy making, which has significant implications for cross UK evidence exchange and analysis.

The development of a distinctive approach to policy making in Scotland can be traced back to the advent of outcomes based government in 2007. The National Performance Framework has set direction for the last 3 parliamentary terms and the requirement to have an outcomes framework which sets long term direction is about to be set in legislation through the Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.

There is broad recognition and consensus around the outcomes across public services in Scotland and developments over the last three terms of government show a broadening of thinking beyond policy silos to consider the range of factors contributing to outcomes. For example, the Justice Strategy defines the justice system broadly with the aim of promoting a “flourishing, inclusive and respectful society”.

There is also a broad consensus around the major issues and barriers to improving outcomes in terms of the Christie Commission analysis. Christie sets out a compelling vision of what we need to do to continue to improve outcomes in the face of reducing public budgets, in terms of four pillars: people, prevention, performance and partnership. Place is often referred to as the fifth pillar.

Interest is now turning to how we make those shifts and the fundamental elements are set out in what is being referred to as the Scottish approach. Those are: 1. Assets or strengths of individuals and communities 2. Co-production or policy developed with rather than done to people and 3. Improvement – local ownership of data to drive change. This articulation of how we work is both a description of what can be seen happening already and an exhortation for others to join the movement. Although developing in thinking pre referendum it has had a significant boost post referendum as Nicola Sturgeon’s government increasingly recognises that how they do things is as important as what they do.

So, what does this mean in the evidence world? Having been involved in developments north and south of the border over the last year or so it is increasingly clear that divergent policy agendas have significant implications for the types of evidence we consider useful and how we use them. If you take What Works as an example, the flagship English centres focus, such as the Educational Endowment Foundation, on ranking and costing interventions and rate Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) as the most secure form of evidence. This works where funder, commissioner and provider operate within a model of choice and competition. It is much less clear how it applies in a world of assets and co-production where the aim is approaches owned and developed by communities. What Works Scotland seeks to work in partnership with communities, looking at how to implement existing evidence and create a journey of shared learning, recognising that the assumption that identifying what works will lead to practitioners changing behaviour is by no means a no-brainer!

This is not to say that either model is right or wrong, they are just responding to policy direction. It does raise important issues for sharing evidence across jurisdictions and the idea of what works creating a ‘common currency’ may be easier said than done.

The emerging model of policy making in Scotland demands a wider range of evidence approaches. Improvement science focuses on implementing what is known to work, so for example the Early Years Collaborative is based on a large body of evidence, much from the U.S., of what works in early child development. The local ownership of data comes in measuring, monitoring and increasing the implementation of what we know works – for example reading bed time stories to children. This approach also leaves the question of whether local approaches are adding up to impact at a national level, so evaluation is still relevant. Whilst improvement values what we know works from empirical evidence, assets and co-production value local ownership and innovation which sets up tensions for the place of evidence.

The articulation of the Scottish approach in policy terms is relatively recent and our approaches to how evidence support that model are evolving. What does seem to me to be clear though, is that we do need to continue to develop our approaches to evidence, to be sensitive to the policy agenda within our jurisdiction and examine our professionalism in that context. If we continue to deploy solely the approaches we would have used in the last decade or those which continue to be held up as the gold standard south of the border we risk the evidence holding back the ambitions of the policy agenda.

Zoe has 20 years experience in public policy in Scotland. She began her career as a researcher at Glasgow University and after a short stint in consultancy joined the Scottish Government in 2000. She has worked in a wide range of analytical and policy roles in government, most recently as the Chief Researcher and was instrumental in establishing What Works Scotland. She has recently left Scottish Government to take a career break and seek a more independent role.