On Friday we wrote about the long-term challenges (and opportunities) that are likely to come our way as we emerge from the COVID-19 economic crisis. And the ‘big questions’ that face us all about the nature of the recovery that we seek to build.
Of course, it’s easy at times like this to imagine a better future. The reality – particularly the priority of trying to get people back in work, not to mention paying off the costs incurred – will be much less rosy. There’s a danger that we (unfairly) over-estimate policy makers’ ability to shape that future. But it’s important at least to try to learn lessons from this crisis.
Also on Friday, the Scottish Government announced a new independent advisory group to “provide expert economic advice to the Scottish Government in response to the COVID-19 crisis.” This follows the lead of other places doing the same thing, including Trump in the US.
The role of the group vs. other advisory bodies?
The aim of the group is to “to advise the government on actions for economy recovery but also to build a fairer, greener and more equal society.” A sort of Council of Economic Advisers if you will…..oh wait, don’t we already have one of those???
In all seriousness, there is an important point here.
We’ve written before about the number of advisory committees, strategies, consultations and agencies involved in policymaking in Scotland. Add on top of that an army of civil servants, and political advisers. One thing that we don’t lack in Scotland is resource for ‘thinking’ about the future – although there are questions about what these groups add in terms of value (and to what extent they simply provide ‘assurance’ for decisions that would have taken place anyway).
What will this new Recovery Committee – particularly with its work on the long-term – contribute to new policy thinking?
The immediate crisis that our economy faces, and the potential for it to alter all aspects of our economy, society and policy, can’t be seen in isolation. All aspects of policy will be impacted.
So a new advisory body is all well and good, but it brings risks in terms of seeing this crisis as ‘one event’ that needs to be tackled with a particular set of thinking. It can’t. All areas of policy will be turned on its head….so should a priority, rather than (or in addition) to any new body, be to get all existing advisory groups, committees, strategy documents and the like, to respond in their own respective area to COVID-19?
Without that there is the potential for confusion. What will this new group say about building a ‘fairer’ or ‘greener’ Scotland? And how will this link or be coordinated – or take a different view (indeed you would hope that now and again different perspectives would be offered) – to existing independent groups, such as the Infrastructure Commission, the Poverty and Inequality Commission, the Just Transition Commission, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Climate Change Plan working group, the Strategic Board for Enterprise and Skills or the Fair Work Convention?
Are these existing groups being mobilised to re-shape their thinking and advice – and to gather the views of the individuals, businesses, trade unions, charities and third-sector organisations that they work with – in the light of COVID-19? Or is their work separate? Will they be members of this new group (albeit requiring a pretty big room!) And will it bring in new voices?
What about recent independent reviews of policy – e.g. on education and skills – and all the various strategies in Scotland? How will these be impacted?
And what are the plans for political accountability and parliamentary scrutiny in all this?
Principles vs. delivery
One frustration with the policy debate in Scotland is the amount of time devoted to discussing, debating and measuring high-level principles and challenges – ‘wellbeing’, ‘productivity puzzle’, ‘inclusive growth’ and the like – versus how little time and effort goes into transforming this thinking into actual policy delivery.
After 20 years of devolution, we have a pretty good understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the Scottish economy. We also will all pretty much agree that the recovery from this crisis needs to protect the vulnerable and tackle inequalities, focus upon supporting young people, prioritise the sectors and regions most impacted, boost productivity, and help the transition to a low carbon economy.
What is much more difficult is how – in practical terms – these issues will be tackled? What specific new policies are needed? How will they actually be rolled out, administered and paid for? What ideas are all well in good but impractical (either for political or budgetary reasons) And what changes to existing priorities and commitments do we need to move on from (or importantly, what should be stopped altogether)?
In addition, it’s important that we recognise that re-building a Scottish economy that is greener, fairer and more equal isn’t in the gift of the Scottish Government. It will require collaboration. And it will require the close engagement – like it or not – of all tiers of government from local government through to Westminster. Will this new group, if it has to real bite, involve UK Government input and/or work closely with equivalent UK bodies and policymakers? (beyond making familiar high-level recommendations like ‘austerity is bad’, ‘we should delay Brexit’ etc)? What about local government and the different views that they may have around priorities for ‘fairness’, ‘wellbeing’ etc? Or the different pressures in different parts of the country?
There is a long-road ahead. And expectations are building that the future might look different to the past. This is by no means guaranteed.
This new group is expected to inform Ministers as they undertake the largest peacetime economic recovery in our history. To do this, it cannot be just an advisory group offering some high-level suggestions that no-one is likely to disagree with.
If this new group brings together people – both externally and internally within the Scottish Government – who are empowered and resourced to develop and implement a plan for the recovery of the Scottish economy, its creation has the potential to be a significant positive step. But Ministers need to give a clear explanation of the powers of this new group, how other bodies will respond and feed in to it and how its recommendations will impact outcomes. Above all, it needs to devote just as much time – in fact even more time – into thinking about the practical delivery of any new policy ideas, the costs and trade-offs involved, as well as a route-map for implementation.
Dean of External Engagement in the College of Social Sciences at Glasgow University and previously director of the Fraser of Allander Institute.
Mairi is the Director of the Fraser of Allander Institute. Previously, she was the Deputy Chief Executive of the Scottish Fiscal Commission and the Head of National Accounts at the Scottish Government and has over a decade of experience working in different areas of statistics and analysis.