MBM submission to the Scottish Parliament Finance and Public Administration Committee inquiry into effective decision-making by the Scottish Government

In December 2022, the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Public Administration Committee launched an inquiry into effective decision-making by the Scottish Government. More detail on the inquiry can be found here. Our submission to the Committee is shown below.

1. What are key methodologies, processes and principles that should underpin an effective decision-making process in Government?

  • Demanding initial questioning of proposals – meaning, intention
  • Definition of terms and concepts
  • Clarification of aims
  • Option appraisal
  • Involvement of internal specialist input as needed
  • Cross-government discussion as needed
  • Evidence gathering
  • Analysis of legal constraints
  • Logical analysis of where a proposal leads if adopted
  • Consideration of implementation issues
  • Cost-benefit analysis
  • Analysis of likely impact on various groups for which this is formally required
  • Risk assessment
  • Identification of competing interests
  • Engagement with all affected interests
  • Engagement with sources of expert advice as needed
  • Consultation compliant with the Gunning principles, including “conscientious consideration” of responses
  • Systematic assessment of final proposals for impacts, risks, cost, legal issues, as above.
  • Implementation planning, including communications

2. What are the capabilities and skills necessary for civil servants to support effective decision making, and in what ways could these be developed further?

Among other qualities, the ability to:

  • detach personally from the government’s political aims
  • identify the nature of the wider public interest
  • think logically
  • be numerate
  • understand formal process round finance and law
  • deal respectfully with contrasting views
  • listen and assimilate other arguments
  • summarise other perspectives accurately
  • scrutinise different views with detachment
  • recognise when stages of the process should be recorded and record those accurately
  • give difficult advice and support more junior staff in giving difficult advice
  • work as part of a team

3. What are the behaviours and culture that promote effective decision-making?

Among other qualities, more senior staff modelling by example:

  • giving frank and fearless advice
  • applying rigour to decision-making
  • dealing respectfully with criticism from inside and outside government
  • finding time to help more junior staff develop their skills
  • valuing record keeping

4. What is best practice in relation to what information is recorded, by whom and how should it be used to support effective decision-making?

The principle should be that at any later date, which might only be in few days, depending on the circumstances, it should be possible to retrieve any information important to making the decision, to see what issues were considered, how they were considered, what conclusions were reached and who was involved.

No-one is too senior or too junior to create a record. A record should be created by the most relevant person, but more senior people should have the support they need to make sure the recording actually happens, including the presence of private office staff where needed.

What this means in practice will vary by context.

5. What does effective decision-making by the Scottish Government ‘look like’ and how should it learn from what has worked well and not so well? Please share any best practice examples.

Effective decision-making looks like decisions that do not need to be revisited because significant problems are discovered later; which as far as possible command support from those most affected (not always possible, but should never be an avoidable failure); which stand up to scrutiny later as having been taken rationally.

We can talk in some detail about the work we have done tracking the policy development process for the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, which we would cite as an example where this has not worked well.

6. To what extent should there be similarities or differences in the process for decision-making across the Scottish Government?

Decision-making processes will vary between policy making and more operational settings. Policy making will always tend to be more unbounded and open-ended in what it may produce. Operational decisions will tend to be more tightly constrained by existing rules and procedures, specific to that setting. Both may need specific specialist input, but in operational settings this often tends to play a larger part, because there is likely to be less political choice involved. However, the same basic principles apply.

7. What role should ‘critical challenge’ have in Government decision-making, when should it be used in the process and who should provide it?

It should be absolutely fundamental all the way through, and it should be every civil servant’s job to provide it, within the their span of responsibility. Once decisions are made, it should not be used as a way to reheat previous arguments and absorb time and energy, but as new issues and evidence come to light there should always be space for continuing challenge and question asking.

External bodies and individuals should be made to feel safe giving providing critical challenge.

8. What is considered to be the most appropriate way of taking account of risk as part of effective Government decision-making?

It will vary by context. For more formal projects and defined pieces of work, risk registers are a good focus for risk assessment, that make sure time is set apart to think systematically about risk. They can be especially useful for ensuring every member of a team gets a chance to be involved in identifying risks and similarly as a focus of discussion with those outside government.

But risk assessment should not be side-lined as a separate activity. Government should be risk assessing its decision-making all the time, as a mindset. It’s a constant process that should be embedded in thinking. Risk management and checks should also be built into any administrative process.

9. How can transparency of the decision-making process be improved?

A much stronger commitment to recording key parts of decision-making. Staff at all levels need to see making and keeping records as a core task, and should be trained, supported and managed in a way which develops and values the skills involved.

There may need to be more internal support to resist any political pressure not to create records. It is not clear how far this is an issue.

10. How can decisions by the Scottish Government be more effectively communicated with stakeholders?

An emerging “them and us” culture visible in parts of the Scottish Government in relation to those outside viewed as critical requires addressing. Those who disagree with government are as deserving of timely, accurate, courteous communication as those who do not.