Scottish devolution has been a disaster and Tony Blair’s biggest mistake

So said the UK Prime Minister recently in a call to Conservative MPs according to news reports. This comment has sparked considerable debate over the relative successes or merits of Scottish devolution and the growing calls for a second independence referendum.

I’ve spent the last twenty years or so researching issues of public management and administration. More recently I have focused on aspects of public services in Scotland including health and social care integration, community empowerment and the Scottish Government. Given the current discussions over what the UK Prime Minister is reported to have said I thought it might be useful to consider some of the evidence.

Scottish devolution has led to increasing policy divergence from the rest of the UK (rUK). This has created some challenges and tensions within the devolution settlement itself; for example, in Scottish higher education (which is devolved) the Scottish Government continue to provide free education to Scottish students but many other aspects of policy which also affect Scottish universities (such as immigration policy, REF and research funding) remain under the auspices of the UK Government (reserved powers). This, as with many other tensions in the devolution settlement, is becoming increasingly sensitive as the impact of Brexit becomes clear and debates continue around use of the Sewel Convention.

In my research I have shown how the Scottish Government have, since devolution, developed a more strategic approach to governance. The evidence I have collected through my studies suggests that this has made a positive difference to the inner workings of the Scottish Government. Further evidence shows how confidence in the Scottish Government remains high. Trust in the Scottish Government has fluctuated between just over 50% in 2006 (directly before the development of the strategic approach) to 72% in 2016.

Figure 2.1: Trust in Scottish Government and UK Government to work in Scotland’s best interests ‘just about always’ or ‘most of the time’ (1999-2019)^

Figure 2.1: Line chart showing levels of trust in the Scottish Government and UK Government to work in Scotland’s best interests (1999-2019)
https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-social-attitudes-2019-attitudes-government-political-engagement/pages/4/#Tab2.1

There are also a number of polls and surveys which indicate high levels of popularity and approval for Nicola Sturgeon and for the Scottish Government – particularly in how they have handled the Covid-19 crisis. It is hard to see how this would be possible without a competent and well functioning administration.

What remains less clear is the extent to which these changes have had a positive impact on the daily lives of the people of Scotland. For example, a different approach has been adopted in with community empowerment it remains unclear how effective this policy has been in practice. Equally cuts to local government have created significant pressure and adversely affected the working lives of those who deliver these vital services.

The fact remains that there simply isn’t sufficient evidence to either support or rebuke the claims of the UK Prime Minister that Scottish devolution has been a disaster. One of the biggest challenges here is the general lack of academic research. Of course there is some excellent research on public policy and administration taking place in Scotland. My point though is that there are relatively few public administration scholars or university departments in Scottish universities.

Assuming we consider the teaching of public administration as a barometer for the health of the subject. Previously there were many departments of public management and administration in Scottish universities and many degree programmes. Currently there is only one Master of Public Administration (MPA) programme in Scotland and no undergraduate degrees in the subject. Taking a comparative approach, in the US states of Minnesota and South Carolina, which both have comparable population size to Scotland, there are 6 and 5 Master of Public Administration (MPA) programmes respectively. Does it follow that there are more public administration scholars across the US and therefore more public administration research taking place? I think so.

Pressures to publish internationally relevant research and to generate income from degree programmes have arguably contributed to a steady decline of public administration scholarship in Scotland (and indeed across the UK). The consequence of this is that there is a relative lack of independent data with which to explore the impacts of devolution over time. There is also arguably a lack of development of future public administration leaders and managers (including in comparison with rUK).

Has devolution been a disaster? My research would not support this statement. But if Scotland is to gain further devolved powers, or even full independence, we need more academic research in Scottish public administration in order to continue to address this question.

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Doctoral Research – the examiners perspective

I have previously written about Why Do a PhD? and How to Prepare for your Viva. But the final examination of doctoral research is based on both the written work (the thesis) and the performance of the student at the viva voce (verbal examination). So what is the motivation for examining a doctoral thesis? How does an examiner go about examining doctoral research? How does an examiner prepare for the viva? And how do they go about reaching a final decision on the quality of the work?

For every examiner this may be different. However, from my perspective I thoroughly enjoy examining doctoral research. I find it to be a great opportunity to learn about the most current research and to discuss this with an emerging scholar. I also want to help the researcher to improve the work and ensure that it is the best that it can be. Ultimately, I am on your side.

In examining a doctorate I will read the thesis thoroughly, making copious notes, and thinking about areas of the thesis where I will want to focus within the viva. By the time I have finished reading the thesis I will have made a judgement about the quality of the research – but it is then important to gain an understanding of the motives and learning of the researcher.

By the time it comes to the viva I will have read the thesis at least twice and will have lots of notes to guide my questions. Typically I will start by asking about the student’s experience and their motivations for doing the research. I may want to know more about the decisions that were made around choice of methodology and methods or how the theoretical focus of the research has been arrived at. Overall I will be exploring the researchers motives and their competence as an independent researcher. I will also want to know what they might do differently if they were to do the research again – what has the researcher learned through the process and are they able to critically reflect on their own practice as a researcher?

Overall I want to make sure that the research can be as good as it can be. It’s important to remember that, by the time you come to submission of your thesis and the viva, the researcher will have engaged in lots of peer review and formative assessment of their work. This may be by presenting at academic conferences, by getting feedback from their supervisors, or through their annual review(s). I will be assessing both the written work and the performance in the viva. As such it is important to prepare for both. What I’m looking for is to see the researcher as a potential future colleague – as a peer.

Remember – I am interested in the research, I want to learn about what has been done and I’m really looking forward to the viva conversation.

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Organisational Learning and Change in a Public Sector Context

This is a brief summary of my research on organisational learning and change as published in Teaching Public Administration in February 2020.

In this article I spoke to a wide range of public sector managers about their experiences of being involved in a public leadership degree programme. I was interested to know what they saw as being the benefits of this learning experience and how it had influenced their practice.

In this article I discuss the nature of the budget cuts that took place across public sector organisations and particularly how learning and development budgets were seen to be an easy target. I then discuss how the participants had encountered barriers to change and what they felt needed to happen to enable innovation and change.

One aspect highlighted was the extent to which it was seen as important that any learning and development was sector specific as the following extract highlights:

The full Open Access (free) article is available here: https://doi.org/10.1177/0144739420903783

I have provided a 2 minute summary of the research here:

More research related to learning and development in public service organisations can be found here:

Gibb, S., Ishaq, M., Elliott, I.C. & Hussain, A.M. (2020) Fair and decent work in Scotland’s local authorities: evidence and challenges, Public Money & Management, DOI: 10.1080/09540962.2020.1723262

Elliott, I.C., Sinclair, C. and Hesselgreaves, H. (2020) “Leadership of Integrated Health and Social Care Services”, Scottish Affairs, 29 (2): 198-222. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3366/scot.2020.0316.

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Researching COVID-19

Coronavirus, or Covid-19, has dominated the news headlines for most of 2020. It has affected every country, every community, everyone. The impact is likely to last for years. What can academia offer in the face of this global public health disaster?

I was honoured to be included, in my role as PAC Chair, in the below discussion on the UK Government response to Covid-19 earlier this year.

cc BRITISH PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION EXCHANGE

Following this discussion the co-editors of our esteemed academic journal, Public Policy and Administration (PPA), have set out seven key research themes where PPA scholars may contribute to our wider understanding of Covid-19. These are published in the October issue of PPA and available online now (Dunlop et al. 2020).

 Dunlop, C. A., Ongaro, E., & Baker, K. (2020). “Researching COVID-19: A research agenda for public policy and administration scholars”. Public Policy and Administration, 35(4), 365–383. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952076720939631

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Conducting qualitative research via online platforms

Over the next few weeks I will be developing a number of resources on research methods to support some of my teaching. Given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic many of these resources will be about online research methods. I am adding them here so they are publicly accessible for anyone else to use.

This Twitter thread highlights a number of references relating to online qualitative methods.

More recently this tweet by Dr Sophie Yates has identified an excellent Google Document listing a wide range of sources on conducting online research:

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Interview with Gary Bandy

This all started with a discussion on Twitter about one of the core texts on the MSc Strategic Leadership for Public Services programme.

I added the author, Gary Bandy, into one of my comments in the thread and after some more discussion Gary kindly agreed to do a short recorded video with me. Unfortunately my webcam cut out half way through the interview. Clearly our tech is going to be challenged over the next few weeks!

This video interview is listed below.

Gary has a number of other online resources including an online school which can be found at https://courses.managingpublicmoney.co.uk . This includes a number of free resources including the free 5 questions to ask about your budget at http://bit.ly/budget5q

Over the last few days I have been developing resources to support online delivery of my modules. As the restrictions on travel continue we will need to do more to support each other via online platforms. If there is anything you think I could help with do get in touch – we need to work together more than ever right now and I’d be very happy to help.

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Some links and research on teaching of public administration

I’ve been really surprised by the response to a recent Tweet of mine about the state of public administration teaching in the UK.

This Tweet was stimulated by a brief conversation I had with an academic at another UK business school. They were raising the fact that public administration was not taught at their institution. This is a very common picture which has been researched widely within the UK public administration community. I’ve also heard anecdotal stories from academics suggesting that there is a hostility towards anything public sector related. One such story was that a senior academic was told not to even mention the words ‘public sector’.

This contrasts with my own experience. I work at Northumbria University where there is a long history of public administration teaching and research. Currently I teach on our MSc Strategic Leadership for Public Services programme and supervise three doctoral students who are all exploring issues related to the public sector. We also have one of the largest cohorts of public administration scholars in the UK. More on how we are leading the public administration revival here.

Debates around the nature of the subject often centre around the nature and legacy of New Public Management (NPM). This was a theoretical approach which suggested that business techniques could (and even should) be applied to the public sector in order to enhance efficiency and effectiveness. Many of the central arguments of NPM have since been debunked.

Yet issues related to the unique public service context are often not fully considered in teaching of business and management. This is despite the public sector making up c.17% of UK employment and c.35% of GDP. It also fails to recognise that the private sector needs an effective public sector to support the infrastructure, culture, society and people needed for business to flourish. At the same time many public services are themselves delivered by the private sector (and increasingly the Third Sector).

This is why the UK Learned Society for public policy and administration – the JUC Public Administration Committee – have called on the public service context to be a more explicit part of undergraduate business and management degree programmes: https://www.juc.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/PAC-Position-Statement-on-QAA-Subject-Benchmarks.pdf

I am continuing to research this issue. However, in the meantime please see the following references which list just some of the research that documents the history of UK public administration.

Some useful references:

Barbaris, P. (2012). Thinking about the state, talking bureaucracy, teaching public administration. Teaching Public Administration, 30 (2): 76-91. DOI: 10.1177/0144739412462232

Boyne, G. (1996). The Intellectual Crisis in in British Public Administration: Is Public Management the Problem or the Solution?, Public Administration, 74, 679-694.

Boyne, G. (2002). Public and Private Management: What’s the Difference? Journal of Management Studies, 39, 97-122. doi: 10.1111/1467-6486.00284

Carmichael, P. (2004). ‘Shackled to a Corpse?’ – A Reply to Howard Elcock. Public Policy and Administration, 19(2), 8–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/095207670401900203

Chandler, J. (1991). Public Administration: a Discipline in Decline, Teaching Public Administration, 11, 39-45.

Chandler, J. (2002). Deregulation and the Decline of Public Administration Teaching in the UK, Public Administration, 80, 375-390.

Chapman, R.A. (1993), THE DEMISE OF THE RIPA — AN IDEA SHATTERED. Australian Journal of Public Administration, 52: 466-474. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8500.1993.tb00302.x

Chapman, R.A.C. (2007), “Joint University Council and the background to public policy and administration?”, Public Policy & Administration, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 7-26.

Davies, M. R., Greenwood, J., & Robins, L. (1995). Public Administration Education and Training: Globalization or Fragmentation? International Review of Administrative Sciences, 61(1), 73–78. https://doi.org/10.1177/002085239506100106

Diamond, J, Liddle, J (2012) Reflections and speculations on teaching and learning in public administration. Public Policy and Administration 27(3): 265–277

Elcock, H. (1991). Change and Decay? Public Administration in the 1990s. London, Longman.

Elcock, H. (2004). Public Administration: Why Are We in the Mess We’re In? Public Policy and Administration, 19(2), 3–7. https://doi.org/10.1177/095207670401900202

Elcock, H. (2013). Local Government: Policy and Management in Local Authorities. London, Routledge.

Elliott, I.C. (2017), Verbal contribution to PSA/JUC Debate on the Future of Public Administration, PSA Annual Conference, University of Strathclyde, April 10.

Elliottt, I.C. (2018). Marking the 100th anniversary of the UK Joint University Council and anticipating the next… Teaching Public Administration, 36(1), 3–5. https://doi.org/10.1177/0144739418763847

Elliott, I.C. (2020). Organisational learning and change in a public sector context. Teaching Public Administration. https://doi.org/10.1177/0144739420903783

Fenwick, J., & McMillan, J. (2014). Public Administration: What is it, why teach it and does it matter? Teaching Public Administration, 32(2), 194–204. https://doi.org/10.1177/0144739414522479

Gray, A, Jenkins, B (1995) From Public Administration to Public Management: Reassessing a Revolution. Public Administration 73(1): 75–99.

Greenwood, J (1999) The Demise of Traditional Teaching: Public Administration in Britain. Teaching Public Administration 19(1): 53–61.

Greenwood, J. and Eggins, H. (1995) Shifting Sands: Teaching Public Administration in a Climate of Change. Public Administration 73(1): 143–63.

Hood, C (2011) It’s public administration, Rod, but maybe not as we know it: British public administration in the 2000s. Public Administration 89(1): 128–139.

Jones, A. (2012). Where Has All the Public Administration Gone? Teaching Public Administration, 30, 124-132.

Liddle, J. (2017), “Is there still a need for teaching and research in public administration and management? A personal view from the UK”, International Journal of Public Sector Management, Vol. 30 No. 6-7, pp. 575-583. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPSM-06-2017-0160

Miller, K. (2012). The Future of the Discipline: Trends in Public Sector Management. In J. Diamond, & J. Liddle. (Eds.) Trends in Public Management: an Age of Austerity. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing.

Raadschelders, J.C.N. (1999) A coherent framework for the study of public administration. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 9(2): 281–303. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.jpart.a024411

Rhodes, R, Dargie, C, Melville, A, Tutt, B (1995) The State of Public Administration: A Professional History, 1970–1995. Public Administration 73(1): 1–15.

Rhodes, R. A. W. 1996. ‘From institutions to dogma: tradition, eclecticism and ideology in the study of British public administration’ Public Administration Review, 56 (6): 507–16.

SHELLEY, I. (1993), WHAT HAPPENED TO THE RIPA?. Public Administration, 71: 471-490. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9299.1993.tb00987.x

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Guest blog: Nicholas Parsons and the Osbornes and the Ackroyds

By Adrian Sinfield, Professor Emeritus of Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh and Honorary Fellow of the JUC.

I doubt if the many tributes to and obituaries of Nicholas Parsons who has just died at the age of 96 will recall his great performance working with Julian Le Grand and others in The Spongers, broadcast by Granada TV on 15 May 1989. The mock panel show had Nicholas as the compere with an assistant Pandora who opened magic boxes to reveal how much or little two couples and their children, the working class Ackroyds and the middle class Osbornes, gained in benefits from the welfare state across their lifetimes.  I used a 20-minute video of it for teaching on the social division of welfare on undergraduate, postgraduate and Erasmus/Tempus courses for years. It took account of not only state benefits but some tax reliefs and some occupational benefits. Nicholas kept bringing in Julian Le Grand as ’The Professor’ to tell us who was getting what, and to explain why.  By the end of their longer lives the Osbornes were shown to have gained more than the Ackroyds. It was ideal for one of the closing sessions of my course: it generated a great deal of amusement and much relevant, often challenging discussion.  Meeting past students now, they often recall that, if nothing else.

Julian told me that Nicholas got very engaged with putting on the show and came up with suggestions that sharpened it in a number of ways. In Good Times Bad Times (2015) John Hills built very successfully on it to discredit ‘the welfare myth of them and us’ including analyses of further generations of those two families, presented as case-studies set in italic.

By a curious coincidence I heard of Nicholas’s death an hour or so after discovering that HMRC is no longer publishing its annual lists of the costs of tax reliefs and expenditures first started after much campaigning in the late 1970s. That data was integral to the Spongers analysis and much used in my course.  Instead HMRC has released a Bulletin on the Estimated Cost of Tax Reliefs which presents each costed relief in a separate table and chart. Apparently they do not want us to add them up as this is misleading.  The Office for Budget Responsibility did so in its July Fiscal Risks report. One of its tables presented ‘policy motivated’ tax reliefs from 2005-06 to 2023-4 as a percentage of GDP.  OBR regarded them as ‘large in absolute terms – approaching 8 per cent of GDP – and also by international standards’. So HMRC has thrust one less visible, less accountable but quite considerable element of the social division of welfare further back into the black box.  I can only hope that the OBR, the National Audit Office and select committees challenge this. John Stewart’s biography of Richard Titmuss, out this year, describes the difficulties he had in 1955 and again later to get consideration of these issues.

Even more now, we need more programmes like The Spongers using the skills that Nicholas had to open up the full picture of who gets what, and why.

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The Strategic State – a case study of the Scottish Government

There is growing interest, internationally, in developing more strategic forms of government. This is seen as essential in order to tackle complex challenges such as climate change, poverty and numerous public health issues such as rising levels of obesity.

In my latest research I explore how changes made within the Scottish Government around 2007-17 demonstrated the implementation of a ‘Strategic State’. Specifically these changes included development of the National Performance Framework, restructuring of the Scottish Government and significant investment in leadership development.

There are some key lessons from this research, particularly for small countries, in how strategic thinking can be fostered within government settings:

  • The importance of having an appropriate organisational structure to support strategy implementation.
  • The need for advocacy from political leaders to enable change.
  • The need for strong administrative leadership and a clear vision for change.
  • The importance of education and training of leaders at all levels of the organisation.
  • A long-term emphasis on culture change.

My research in this area is ongoing. Projects that I am involved in include aspects of health and social care integration, the nature of work in local government and the nature of distributed leadership in government settings. This builds on previous work which showed how the aspirations for greater community empowerment require investment in communities. In taking forward this work I am looking at recent developments such as the refresh of the National Performance Framework. If you think you could contribute to this research do get in touch with me.

You can read my latest publication here:

Ian C. Elliott (2020) The implementation of a strategic state in a small country setting—the case of the ‘Scottish Approach’, Public Money & Management, https://doi.org/10.1080/09540962.2020.1714206

Or you can view my full research profile here: https://researchportal.northumbria.ac.uk/en/researchers/ian-elliott(a915f572-1e7b-4812-9325-b2fce9fdd55f).html

Or simply get in touch! Click here to email me

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PAC Annual Conference – Closing Address 2019

Did you enjoy our annual conference? I hope you did! This year we had almost 100 abstracts submitted from delegates across 12 countries. It has been the largest and most international PAC Annual Conference in many years.

People often ask me why I do it. Why be Chair of the PAC? Why convene the annual conference? I know that the drive within academia is towards more and more instrumentalism – and the time it takes to do these things I could be writing research bids or journal papers. But I hope that you can see, having participated in the sessions, heard from Professor Barbara Crosby and Rt Hon Baroness Grey-Thompson, and had fun at the conference dinner, why I feel it is a great privilege and honour to serve as your Chair.

The Joint University Council is the UK Learned Society for pubic administration, public policy and social work. As such we have a very important position as the voice of the public administration community. We therefore have the ability to inform and shape the nature of our subject. At this conference there have been many great ground-breaking pieces of research presented but also three things that will help to shape our subject in the future:

1. The conference theme

We made the conscious decision to include marginalisation within the conference theme. This was in recognition that we need to do more to include aspects of marginalisation within our subject. And it was great to see some papers exploring issues related to BAME communities, LGBTQ+ issues and alternative methodological approaches such as post-structuralism and critical realism. For some time now public administration has been a marginalised subject – particularly within business schools. We are lucky that, at Northumbria University, the subject is valued but that is not the case for many of our colleagues and so we have an important role to play in both advocating for more public administration but also pushing the boundaries of what public administration is and who it involves.

2. REF Post-2021

Within the conference packs you will have seen our REF Post-2021 Position Statement. This was developed with the PAC together with colleagues from the special interest groups from the Political Studies Association (PSA) and British Academy of Management (BAM). The statement sets out how important public administration research is and how, in particular within the Unit of Assessment C17, it forms a large part of the submissions.

3. QAA Subject Benchmark Statements

Alongside our position statement on the REF Post-2021 we also have developed a position statement on the QAA Subject Benchmark Statements. Again this was developed with colleagues from the relevant special interest groups from the PSA and BAM. This statement highlights the importance of public services to the economy and for employment. In order to ensure undergraduate students, particularly those graduating with management degrees, are equipped for employment in the mixed employment it is important that public services feature more widely in management degrees.

All these developments highlight how public management and administration is changing. How many people are attending the conference here for the first time? I can see many new faces. You also represent change and by working together, within our learned society, you can play a role in shaping the nature of our subject in the future. We also have two new members of the PAC executive – Dr Karin Bottom is our new Vice-Chair for Teaching and Learning and Dr Russ Glennon is our new Vice-Chair for Research. We are growing and we are changing.

This leads me on to our doctoral researchers. On Monday we held our Doctoral Conference. It was well attended and I was incredibly impressed by the quality of the papers presented. Across the board there were excellent presentations. This made it a very difficult task for both Karin and I in coming to a decision on the Richard Chapman Prize for best doctoral paper. We judged this on a number of criteria including the currency of the research, how it contributes to the field, the quality of the paper and how it fits with the overall conference theme. It was a difficult decision and in the end we have awarded the Richard Chapman Prize along with two additional Highly Commended awards.

Winner of the Richard Chapman Prize in 2019 is Dayo Eseonu from University of Manchester for her paper on “Co-production as social innovation: new wine or new skin for the inclusion of “hard-to-reach” groups in service delivery’.

We award ‘Highly Commended’ to Sean McCulloch from Northumbria University for his paper on ‘Facilitating change from within complex systems: the impact of individual change agents in the NHS’ and to Emma Reith from University of Birmingham for his paper on ‘Research at the margins: the trials and tribulations of stepping outside of one’s disciplinary norms’.

The quality of these papers, and all those presented at the doctoral conference, represent how bright our future is as a subject. We are the only UK Learned Society to represent public administration and social work and it we have a vital role to play in ensuring that our doctoral researchers, early career researchers and academics at all levels are supported. We have a strong position in doing this. We have two journals: Public Policy and Management and Teaching Public Administration, we have our annual conference, we have successfully nominated REF panel members to both the Politics and Business Management panels, we have nominated fellows of the Academy of Social Sciences, we have nominated fellows to the JUC, we also provide funding and other support to those within our member institutions.

I am delighted to confirm that the two funding competitions – for a research seminar series and for a small research grant – will be announced to all member institutions very soon. We also have an opening for treasurer of the JUC. So there are lots of ways to get involved – please contact me or either of my Vice-Chairs if you would like to find out more.

Thank you colleagues for all your participation over the last three days. I will now hand over to Alistair Jones, from De Montfort University, who will introduce you to the PAC Annual Conference 2020!

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