August 29, 2019

Breaking from tradition – why we must embrace the National Performance Framework

by Anna Fowlie, Chief Executive, Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

To coincide with the 10 year anniversary of the publication of the Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, the Carnegie UK Trust is publishing a series of blogs which outline the approach taken to measuring and improving wellbeing by different governments, organisations and initiatives around the world.
Since devolution in 1999, we have had much debate in Scotland about describing and building the Scotland we want to be. That’s taken various forms and has spawned many policy papers and pieces of legislation, such as the Community Empowerment Act and the Scottish Approach to Service Design. The most recent beacon of hope is the refreshed National Performance Framework, which embeds the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and has cross-party support in the Scottish Parliament.

We are measuring ourselves as a country against wellbeing indicators, tackling poverty and inequality. We even have an outcome that includes the word “love”. So far so good. But what has changed? Have we moved away from outputs and targets? Are we putting the safety of the planet above economic benefit? Is the gap between the rich and the poor narrowing? In short, no.

Politicians are still wedded to output commitments like numbers of police officers, hospital waiting times, and numbers of people in jobs (regardless of what sort of job). We are still building big infrastructure projects. While the debate in the Scottish Parliament involves less braying and bellowing than Westminster, the challenge and response for all sides is almost always about numbers and short-term issues. Why is that? While it would be easy to label it lazy or opportunistic politicking, it’s actually about the public discourse. Until we have people deciding who to vote for on the basis of long-term values and value, nothing will change. While people are still more concerned about keeping under-occupied buildings they never use open, while we still buy into the myth that having more police officers reduces crime, that is what our elected representatives will campaign on.

We still focus on unit costs of separate parts of the system – the micro version of GDP being based purely on financial productivity. If we expect hospitals, schools and prisons to produce meals for a pittance, we won’t address individual wellbeing and we won’t address local economic sustainability. Similarly, we need to maximise the opportunities for connection brought by digital technology, developed in an organic, inclusive way. If we try to manage digital transformation like building a bridge – where it’s all about how strong the physical parts are and not how easy is it to engage with – we won’t achieve the citizen-centred, holistic approach the National Outcomes portray or the Scottish Approach advocates.

When you talk to people, they care about poverty, they care about climate change, they care about children growing up loved. Perhaps it just feels too big to get your head round, or perhaps it’s easier to let people keep worrying about short-term, specific matters so we don’t have to collectively come up with the more radical systemic solutions we need.

We must embrace the National Performance Framework and measure all of our services, whatever sector they are in, against its outcomes. It must inform budgets at national, local and community level. It must be more than an aspirational rallying call and become a genuine Performance Framework, leaving the traditional models behind.