Monthly Archives: November 2020

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)

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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