May 23, 2024

National Outcomes review gives Swinney tool to govern

by Sarah Davidson, Carnegie UK

First published in The Herald Scotland on 20th May 2024.

While keen followers of Scottish politics were interpreting every meaningful look from John Swinney on May 1st, they could be forgiven for missing a new publication from the Scottish Government which slipped out quietly below the radar that day.

However, those with long memories might have spotted an intriguing connection between the man who is now Scotland’s First Minister and the “Consultation with Parliament in connection with the Review of National Outcomes”.

As John Swinney reminded Parliament on Tuesday, he first entered government in Scotland in 2007. One of the first acts of that SNP Cabinet was to redefine the way that government should work in Scotland, organising it around new “National Outcomes” – a set of ambitions describing what a future successful Scotland would look like.  As well as putting Scotland in the forefront of countries trying to find new ways of tackling complex societal issues, it was also a canny way of going about minority government.

This framework of National Outcomes was intended as a unifying mechanism, whose aspirations for Scotland would only be met if everyone played their part. It was the vision around which the SNP Government built their big tent, binding in contributions from Scottish local government; NDPBs and agencies; the third and voluntary sectors, and (at least in theory) the business sector. It was what academics call a “whole system approach” – a recognition that the most challenging policy issues of the day will never be solved by any one agency or portfolio working alone.

Since 2007, many people and organisations have worked together in Scotland to put this into practice. We now know that deep-seated protectionist behaviours and narrow incentives must be replaced. That accountabilities must go beyond single services or organisations. That big tents require genuine mutual respect and trust if everyone is to play to their strengths.

All this time, the complex policy challenges including poverty; climate change; productivity; and health inequalities have not gone away. If anything, they have become bigger and harder. Meanwhile, the original vision of the outcomes framework remains true: to make progress you must find ways of spanning organisational, financial and political boundaries.

That is why it is extremely timely that the Government has just reported to Parliament on its 5-yearly review of the National Outcomes. The paper re-states a commitment to using the framework to “improve the wellbeing of people living in Scotland now and in the future.”

That report might have remained largely below the radar were it not for the election of John Swinney as First Minister of a minority Government.  Given his role at the birth of the National Outcomes framework, he will know better than most that his “number one priority” of ending Child Poverty will require a multiple agency, joined-up approach. It will require the “Big Tent”, valuing all contributions. It will require finding common ground with those who don’t share all his political beliefs.  Is this the moment for John Swinney to reclaim his 2007 vision for government in Scotland and drive it home?