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June 2, 2020

Time for grown up dialogue

At a certain point, a few weeks into lockdown, the First Minister began to take a distinctly different approach in her daily briefings from those that were coming out of Westminster. It was characterised in some quarters as her treating the public like grown-ups. Elsewhere it’s increasingly recognised as part of a long overdue shift in the way Governments should be delivering policy – away from the old school ‘decide, announce and defend’ approach and more towards ’engage, deliberate, decide’. Former MSP Peter Peacock, who knows a thing or two about delivering policy, suggests the latter is the way to go.

Peter Peacock, Scottish Review

I carry no brief for the First Minister, but I have been mostly admiring of her public handling of the COVID-19 crisis to date. Is she setting a new standard and expectations for public decision-making, and will others follow?

Her approach to the complex issues around the way out of lockdown is notable and contrasts starkly with the PM’s approach. She is clear that this situation is complex; that people should be treated as grown-ups; that data and the nature of the complexity is shared; and that an adult conversation about the issues and trade-offs is needed before proceeding. It is deft handling. Of course, she knows she needs to take people with her because if she doesn’t, the strategy won’t endure. Get this wrong and confidence and trust evaporate, and the implications are not confined to COVID-19 handling.

Teele Pehk is unlikely to be a name well known in Scotland. She is an activist within the Open Government Partnership in Estonia, who has described the need to change decision-making in the public realm from ‘decide, announce, defend’ (often followed by ‘abandon’) to ‘engage, deliberate, decide’ – for delivery of policy that endures.

The latter territory is where the First Minister seems to be positioned on the way out of lockdown. With little time for extended conversation, she is using the intensity of a daily spotlight for an impactful engagement, increasing public understanding of the key issues. Trying to keep people with her. Regular polling of the public mood reveals over 80% approval of the approach and keeping a close eye on public mood is part of how you inform good decisions that will stick. Not being aware of shifting public mood before crucial decisions is a foolish place to be.

But will the standard being set for better decisions spill over into the wider decisions on key strategies across the public sector? Will we be able to move away from stultifying online standard consultations now so prevalent, to more deliberative and engaging styles?

Not every decision-making exercise can achieve the sort of intense engagement the First Minister is able to generate around COVID-19 today, but there are many long-term strategic policies that could benefit from more deliberative engagement approaches. For example, few will be aware that the water regulator in Scotland wants to get people onto a water prices escalator for the next 20 years which will see their water charges double. This is no small matter: it is an approach of far-reaching consequence.

It started as an asset growth and replacement strategy, consuming resources at a vastly increased rate to improve and maintain service levels into the future. But it is known from research that over 80% in Scotland do not favour above inflation price increases when they aren’t aware of the challenges of maintaining high-quality water delivery in ways that also meet the climate challenge.

However, when water users are given the opportunity of gaining understanding, there is some evidence they are more prepared to support potential charge increases. It was in pursuit of an adult conversation on complex interactions between service levels, investment, climate change and prices that the Customer Forum for Water struck a deal with Scottish Water to hold a National Engagement Programme before final decisions on future water charges were confirmed.

Many a public policy strategy in recent times will have had elements of representation as a climate emergency strategy, doubtless because that label is more likely to win approval. Investment strategies labelled ‘COVID-19 recovery’ are likely to abound shortly. But to win enduring support to public policy, the ethical approach embodied in an ‘engage, deliberate, decide’ operating style is necessary.

Some who favour the old ways will still exist – those who believe there is no alternative to their thinking. We need to face the reality and get on with it, whatever it is. Down that road may lie the odd short-term victory but at the likely expense of durable policy. For that, as for COVID-19 lockdown exit, people need engaging to build confidence and trust that the strategy is right before it is confirmed and implemented.

I hope the First Minister finds the successful routes out of lockdown that we all want. Progress on this is pitched as a shared endeavour with shared success the prize, but it is not the only public endeavour for which shared and enduring confidence and trust is needed.

Will others follow the First Minister’s lead and adopt a new standard developing trust and confidence in potential policy as the basis for enduring decisions? I live in hope.
Peter Peacock is a former Labour MSP and Cabinet Secretary who, until earlier this month, chaired the Customer Forum for Water in Scotland