The rules of haircare

Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde

Mike Foulis
Visiting Professor, CELCIS
Formerly Director for Children and Families with the Scottish Government

31 January 2017 

“The Rules of Haircare are Simple and Finite” (Elle Woods, Legally Blond (2001))

That’s how Reese Witherspoon’s character, standing on the court room steps, explained how a few moments earlier she had proved the key prosecution witness was lying and sensationally cleared her client of murdering her husband. An affirmation that reasoning about the world is both possible and worthwhile, that false statements can be exposed by the application of knowledge and logic, and that facts are real. Unexceptional maybe when it was made, but more of a rallying cry now.

Public policy and the Enterprise and Skills Review

Are the rules of public policy simple and finite? Let’s see if we can follow Elle Woods’ lead in the case of the Scottish Government’s Enterprise and Skills Review. Here’s what the Scottish Government said when launching it back in May 2016.

The enterprise and skills agencies – Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council – play an important role in delivering our economic strategy,supporting economic development in Scotland and enabling every individual to achieve their potential.  Building on their good work in the context of the opportunities and challenges ahead, the review will take a freshlook at how we maximise individual and collective impact and effectiveness in transforming productivity, driving a step change in the performance of our economy, and delivering strong, vibrant and inclusive growth atscale.

Reasonable enough you might think. Perhaps even the sort of housework you’d expect a responsible government to do, though maybe not if they’d known which way the Brexit vote was going to go. They set up a large review group, including most of the people who might have had something to say on the subject. They published some excellent evidence papers, ran a consultation and published a report on what they called phase 1 of the review. The Minister in charge’s foreword explained:

Its decisions cover a range of aspects that are designed to deliver on our aspirations for a more prosperous and inclusive Scotland by ensuring coherence and hence a simpler, more flexible and cost-effective system of national and local support. This will ensure a system in which all of our agencies work hand in glove with each other and collaboratively with our business, academic and civic partners to optimise economic impact across the whole of Scotland.

There were 10 actions. Here’s the first and third:

  • To bring greater integration and focus to the delivery of our enterprise and skills support to businesses and users of the skills system, we will create a new Scotland- wide statutory board to co-ordinate the activities of HIE and SE, including SDI, SDS and the SFC.
  • We seek to build an economy that is equitable and has the necessary flexibility and focus to respond well to local circumstances. To do this we will work with local and regional partners to understand key challenges and to maximise economic opportunity in all parts of the country.

A curlier perm and straighter hair?

This is where we run into our first haircare problem. Apparently we are simultaneously going to be more nationally consistent and less national consistent. We want a curlier perm, and also straighter hair.

Then there’s the next problem – what about the existing boards? Are they being abolished or not? You can read the phase 1 report all you like, but you won't find an answer. This subsequent SPQ answer suggests that they will be abolished. But, strictly speaking, the words are consistent with them continuing in some form. So we’re having our hair done, but from what they’ve told us, we don't know what they’re going to do to it. You ought to be able to tell.

Does better governance lead to better performance?

And then there’s the question of whether messing around with boards and governance will get us anywhere. “Driving a step change in the performance of our economy” is not a walk in the park. For instance, as Dietrich Vollrach argues, there are arithmetical reasons why no policy can hope to boost growth above trend rates by more than a tiny amount (Warning: contains maths). As if that wasn't bad enough, Brad DeLong fears that even maintaining that trend growth rate might be beyond us owing to secular stagnation. And here’s Dani Rodrik explaining how tricky it is to get the relationship between Government and Industry right (also of interest because this is the foremost US exponent of industrial policy denouncing Trump’s proposed industrial policy). So plenty of stuff to be worrying about in the substance of the actual work of the bodies being reviewed before we get on to boards and governance.

What about the evidence papers? Maybe they set that hare running? But you’ll search in vain for anything in the papers pointing you in that direction. In fact they could be read as one big sign pointing in the opposite direction – structures seem to be completely unrelated to performance or success.

Maybe it’s all Audit Scotland’s fault. They’re quite keen on that governance stuff, and they did come out with a report on SE and HIE just after the Review got going. But no, apparently the enterprise agencies are successful and well-governed, and if anything needs to be done it’s the Scottish Government tying up its end, what with all its new revenue-raising powers etc.

If the rules of Public Policy were simple and finite, then it would be possible to construct from the available information the chain of reasoning that leads from the initial premise to the conclusion. And since we don’t seem to be able to, then we have to conclude that, unlike Haircare, the rules of Public Policy are not, at least in this case, simple and finite.

And yet, is it not possible, even at this stage, that they could be made simple and finite? If only to avoid the sort of fuss and bother that has sadly confronted the Scottish Government since their announcement. Perhaps it is.

Applying an Improvement Science approach 

We need only look at what the Scottish Government has been up to elsewhere in its responsibilities. Since 2008 it has been applying the principles of Improvement Science  to achieve reductions in harm to patients that were literally regarded as impossible by the medical profession at the time. Building on that success, in 2013 it started applying those principles to making Scotland the best place to grow up, and has helped achieve a 19% reduction in the national stillbirth rate in only 2 years. This approach is spreading through other areas of children’s services, criminal justice and more. So far as we can tell, the Scottish Government is a world leader in the ambition and range of its Improvement Science activities.

Why not apply it in phase 2 of the Enterprise and Skills Review? The intellectual antecedents  arose in manufacturing industry, so it is not some alien, public-sectory thing. And, even better, it keeps you well away from fiddling with boards and governance. There’s a well established role for leaders at all levels, but the focus at the start is relentlessly on the actual work that people do delivering their organisation’s purpose. It is an adaptation of the scientific method, and so emphasises rapid cycle experimentation, on the Royal Society principal of nullius in verba. Which means that it is not some strange cult you have to take on trust. You can even apply it to itself to see if it works. What could be more simple and finite than that?

The concluding part of the quote we started with is of course “As any Cosmo girl would know”. Thus the liberating power of knowledge (of the rules and that they are simple and finite) is available to everyone and widely shared. A democratic intellect indeed. And what could be more suitable for us here in Scotland than that?