Linking budgets to outcomes – the impossible dream?

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When the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework (NPF) first appeared in 2007 it was hailed as a “world-leading example of a wellbeing approach to government”. Although inspired by the existing performance measurement system used in the US state of Virginia, Scotland’s NPF was regarded as genuinely innovative by many commentators at the time. It’s fair to say expectations were high, with Oxfam telling our Finance Committee in 2011:

“The National Performance Framework offers an exciting opportunity for Scotland to bolster its leadership in innovation in socio-economic policy and progressive legislation. Through the NPF, Scotland can develop the most coherent and forward-thinking framework for orientating and evaluating public policy in accordance with social, environmental and economic prosperity.”

The Government billed its NPF as a “10-year vision” for Scotland, with the original Framework centred around the Government’s purpose. This was supported by 11 “purpose targets”, for example:

  • To match the GDP growth rate of the small independent EU countries by 2017
  • To match average European (EU15) population growth over the period from 2007 to 2017
  • To increase overall income and the proportion of income earned by the three lowest income deciles as a group by 2017
  • To reduce emissions over the period to 2011

Whether or not these targets were met is not the most relevant point here (OK, roughly half were met and half were missed), rather what is interesting is that the targets were almost all time-limited. When the NPF was updated in 2011, and again in 2016, the Purpose Targets were retained and refreshed, and everyone knew what had to be achieved and by what date.

It’s worth noting that, in addition to the Purpose and Purpose Targets, there were also 16 National Outcomes, all supported by various National Indicators. The indicators were not time-limited, but they were accompanied by useful narratives such as “what is the Government’s role”, “why is this national indicator important”, “how is Scotland performing” and “who are our partners”.

Target practice

When the Government established a new framework last year, the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Jobs and Fair Work Committee was somewhat surprised to find that all time-limited targets had been removed from the NPF. The Committee asked “how will the impact of policy be measured if we are moving away from the previous specific time-based purpose targets? What will the benchmark be?”. In response, the Scottish Government’s Chief Economist confirmed that the new NPF will not have any time-specific commitments “because it is about continuous improvement”.

It’s clear that the Government is not opposed to targets in general, after all it has just introduced various bills aimed at enshrining targets on child poverty, fuel poverty and carbon emission in law. So, does the removal of targets in the new NPF help the Parliament in its role of scrutinising the Scottish Government and holding it to account?

Scotland’s Wellbeing – Delivering the National Outcomes

This came into sharp focus last week with the publication of the Scottish Government’s NPF baseline report, Scotland’s Wellbeing – Delivering the National Outcomes. Released to coincide with the Government’s Medium Term Financial Strategy, the baseline report should be seen as a contribution towards a more outcomes-based form of budget scrutiny. Indeed, the Budget Process Review Group, set up by the Government and Parliament in 2016/17, specifically recommended that the NPF be used more widely by Parliament in evaluating the impact of Government budgets. As such, the baseline report aims to bring together existing evidence and analysis on a number of key issues, trends and features of Scotland’s performance which the Government feels are “important to consider when making decisions on policy, services and spending.”

The baseline report published two weeks ago provides a snapshot of current performance across a range of outcomes and indicators. Most of the information relates to the NPF indicators; however, some chapters also discuss data not included in the NPF, such as the number of people employed in the tourism sector or the level of in-work poverty. The chapters are structured around six broad headings:

  • Scotland’s people and reputation
  • Scotland’s natural and economic resources
  • Fair and equitable working society
  • Educated, skilled and realising our full potential
  • Living healthy lives
  • Community wellbeing in Scotland

These do not correspond to Government departments or Parliament committees, so is not clear how Committees can simply focus on those chapters most relevant to their remits.

Furthermore, the report does not include commentary on policy or Government spending decisions. Neither does the new NPF website – quite a departure from the previous incarnation which had always included a section on “what is the Government’s role” in achieving outcomes and national indicators. Therefore, it is not immediately clear how the baseline report, or indeed the new website, supports efforts to identify linkages between budget decisions and outcomes as recommended by the Budget Process Review Group.

NPF and Scottish Government accountability?

The Government states that the refreshed NPF was supported by the Scottish Parliament last year, but Parliament was simply asked to approve the national outcomes, which it duly did.

However, parliamentarians across the political spectrum also expressed a range of concerns about the new NPF. For example, Graeme Dey MSP, speaking as Convener to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee noted that the proposed draft NPF “does not specify targets and we consider that it could be improved by better connecting the outcomes to the underlying targets. More work needs to be done to ensure that the indicators are more specific and measurable”.

During the same debate, Tom Mason MSP observed that “when measurement can no longer be directly tied to outcomes, accountability is lost”.

The Government states that the NPF should inform discussion, collaboration and planning of policy and services across Scotland, encompassing the public sector, businesses, civil society and communities. It is clearly a framework to be used for policy development and delivery based on the ideals of co-production, partnership and service integration (often referred to as the “Scottish approach”). By definition, it has to be broad enough for a range of players to buy into, thus enabling organisations to respond to local needs whilst also working towards national goals.

However, the Scottish Government is more than a facilitator or provider of strategic direction to other public bodies. It is the executive body responsible for implementing laws and policies on matters that are devolved to Scotland, with a discretionary budget of almost £35 billion. And yet, the Parliament has had limited success since 2007 in using the NPF as a basis for scrutinising the Government’s budget.

Nobody said it was easy…

Linking budgets to outcomes is notoriously difficult, for who can say that complex social and economic outcomes are ever neatly attributable to any one budget line? However, it should still be possible for parliamentarians to gain an understanding of the extent to which a budget line has made a positive contribution to an outcome. After all, budgets buy inputs which should lead to measurable outputs. The effectiveness of these outputs can then be assessed against desired outcomes.

As mentioned above, the NPF summary report published last week does not claim to measure the contribution of Government policies to the delivery of national outcomes. Instead, it is more a gateway, or a “starting point”, in to the large range of social, environmental and economic data used in the NPF and beyond, and an accessible and well-illustrated snapshot of how Scotland is currently performing across these indicators. It will be the job of committees over the next few years to track performance and assess the extent to which Government spending decisions in their policy areas have been effective.

Greig Liddell, Senior Researcher, Financial Scrutiny Unit