The What Works Scotland programme had a particular focus on developing and mobilising evidence for public action, be it within or between public, third and community sectors. However, if more and better evidence, on its own, could solve policy problems and improve public services, we would probably be in a very different position.

Many of the challenges in sustaining the pace, breadth and depth of public service reform relate to challenges in governance. The theme of governance is somewhat theoretical, but it provides a broader context to situate the other themes in this report, and it also has some practical implications.

Research insights

Governance, in its broadest sense, refers to the processes of organising and governing collective action. Governance takes place through networks, markets and the state, and power dynamics are at the centre of these relationships and processes. This theme is therefore closely related to the Participation and Partnership themes. Good governance, in the context of the Scottish Approach, seeks to coherently combine public participation and stakeholder collaboration to maximise their potential in delivering effective and responsive public services.

From an international perspective, the Scottish Approach epitomises the evolution and uncomfortable overlapping of three paradigms of governance. Firstly, the classic Public Administration paradigm which took shape in the aftermath of the Second World War, and where hierarchies and logics of command and control were central to governing the large scale of the emerging welfare systems. Secondly, in the 1980s the New Public Management paradigm irrupted into the scene, challenging public administration to borrow approaches and techniques from the world of business, advocating a more managerial approach to services, and having an optimistic view about the power of markets and the efficiency of market dynamics.

Finally, in the last two decades, the paradigm of the New Public Governance has emerged to respond to the demands of a world where networks (and not just hierarchies or markets) are crucial to grapple with the complexities of public policy and services. The Scottish Approach aspires to be an exemplar of the New Public Governance, which seeks to be more responsive and creative than classic Public Administration, while being more democratic (participative and collaborative) than the New Public Management paradigm. Our research indicates that there is progress in this regard, but the transition is patchy across policy and geographical areas. (See Community Planning after the Community Empowerment Act: The Second Survey of Community Planning Officials in Scotland and At the frontier of collaborative and participatory governance: Eight key discussions to support putting Christie into practice).

In many places, the competing logics of these three paradigms (hierarchical, managerial, participatory) coexist and overlap, often uncomfortably. This sometimes is interpreted as a clash of public service cultures which can create confusion at both the strategic and frontline levels of public services.

A significant factor regarding governance in Scotland is the current centralisation of authority, the limited powers of local government, and the absence of a fully-functioning tier of local democracy close to communities of place. (See Strengthening Community Councils: Exploring how they can contribute to democratic renewal in Scotland and Transforming communities? Exploring the roles of community anchor organisations in public service reform, local democracy, community resilience and social change). A range of partnerships, in particular community planning partnerships, are expected to bridge the gap between localities and the strategic governance of public services. However, these partnerships often struggle to enable community participation and empowerment. In this context, advancing public service reform requires rewiring governance processes by learning from experiences with more participative and deliberative forms of local governance.

In terms of public service reform, improving governance has often meant reforming structures and procedures; the ‘hardware’, to use a computing metaphor. Getting that dimension right is crucial, but perhaps the best-known secret in the world of governance studies is that policy and public service successes and innovations often hinge on the ‘software’: relationships, mindsets, values and ways of working. This relates closely to Christie’s calls for culture change in the design, management and delivery of services.

Implications for policy and practice

  • All stakeholders in formal partnership structures must pay attention to their governance practices. Partners across services and sectors must engage with the complexities and ‘messiness’ of making a difference locally. For example, community planning partnership boards should investigate how board members see their role and capacity to participate, challenge and influence decisions and, if appropriate, revise working arrangements to enable productive scrutiny and shared decision-making. These should support longer-term deliberation on practical issues and provide spaces for critical reflection on aspirations for sustaining a public service ethos and working to address wicked policy issues.
  • The Scottish Approach to public governance must seek to develop a coherent system where community participation feeds into partnership working, informs formal decision-making and leads to action. Community engagement in community planning partnerships, for example, should be more coherently and transparently linked to decision-making, regardless of the type of process and level of power-sharing at stake (e.g. consultation, co-production, delegation).
  • The role of community-led institutions needs to be strengthened. For example, community anchors could become sustainable and strong levers to improve governance and advance public service reform. Community anchors offer distinctive and unique contribution to not only public service reform but more generally to locally-led economic and social development through: their local leadership and governance structures; their local knowledge, flexibility and creativity; their potential to work with local diversity and connectivity and connecting to ‘hard-to-reach’ groups, local social capital and preparedness to work with local difference. Other community-led institutions also need to be re-imagined. For example, the role of community councils in local democracy, should be a central consideration in any local governance reform.
  • Finally, new governance mechanisms are needed to support learning across communities and scaling-up successful interventions. There is great potential for communities and public services to learn from other examples of public service reform in action. A strategy and relevant mechanisms need to be in place to facilitate this learning.

Cover of the report Key Messages About Public Service Reform in Scotland with What Works Scotland logo

What Works Scotland: Key messages about Public Service Reform in Scotland

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