Review of the National Outcomes 2023 – Back to the future?

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The National Performance Framework (NPF) celebrated its 15th birthday in November 2022. The Scottish Government is currently consulting on the second review of the National Outcomes, so this blog looks to provide some background on the NPF, discuss Parliament’s role in scrutinising the National Outcomes and the NPF, and analyse some of the key issues around the NPF that the Scottish Government may look to address.


The NPF is described by the Government as a “framework for all of Scotland”, with five broad aims to:

  • “create a more successful country
  • give opportunities to all people living in Scotland
  • increase the wellbeing of people living in Scotland
  • create sustainable and inclusive growth
  • reduce inequalities and give equal importance to economic, environmental and social progress.”

The NPF outlines values which, according to the Scottish Government, guide their approach to policymaking – “treating all people with kindness, dignity and compassion, respecting the rule of law, and acting in an open and transparent way.”

The 11 national outcomes “describe the kind of Scotland it aims to create” and the 81 National Indicators meaure progress against the outcomes.   Assessment of performance is made by analysts within the Scottish Government, with “improving”, “maintaining” or “worsening” status being attributed to each of the 81 national indicators.

As highlighted in this SPICe briefing on the NPF and budget scrutiny from 2019, the NPF was hailed as “a world-leading example of a wellbeing approach to Government” when first introduced in 2007. The NPF is intended to allow for complex issues to be tracked, analysed and processed to help create long-term, sustainable and integrated public policy solutions.

With that said, it should be noted that there remain significant gaps in the data – for example, Education has no performance data for 4 out of 9 Indicators, Human Rights has no performance data for 3 out of 4 indicators, Communities has no data for 3 out of 4 indicators, and International has just 3 out of 6 Indicators currently measuring performance.

SPICe also publishes regular blog updates on how Scotland is performing against the NPF and further information as to how performance of each indicator is decided based on its own “criteria for change”. However, at the time of writing, due to a technical issue with the NPF website, we have not been able to update this tracker blog since March 2023.

Further information, and several case study examples regarding the work of the Scottish Government and organisations which contributes towards achieving the national outcomes, is also available on the NPF website.

The review – what is it?

Since its inception in 2007, the NPF has seen a number of reviews which have brought about changes to the framework.

The most significant change came in 2015, with the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act requiring Scottish Ministers to set national outcomes, consult on those outcomes, and review them every five years.

The first review of the NPF under the Act came in 2018, accompanied by a host of new indicators and outcomes to, the Government stated, reflect the issues of the day and to align with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It introduced additional indicators such as gender balance in organisations, child wellbeing and happiness, and secure work.

This forthcoming review follows significant global developments since 2018 which – at some stage or another – have fundamentally altered almost every aspect of life in Scotland. The climate emergency, refugee crises arising from conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, an unprecedented cost-crisis and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic have represented major challenges for individuals and organisations in Scotland at every level.

In March 2023, the Scottish Government began its consultation process on the National Outcomes and the NPF as the first step in the 2023 review. This consultation ran until 12 June 2023.

Following this, the Government will consider the evidence received and produce a revised set of National Outcomes, potentially with changes to the wider NPF as well.  This will be laid before the Parliament, and there will then be a parliamentary process to scrutinise and report on the revised outcomes.  This will be led by the Finance and Public Administration Committee, with contributions from committees on areas of the NPF within their remits. Timings for this are still to be determined, but it is likely to happen in early 2024.

Back to the future?

The Ministerial foreword to the Scottish Government’s consultation paper states that the unprecedented global challenges highlighted above have not only served to exacerbate existing inequalities but have also shone a light on how people across Scotland experience different outcomes. The latter is a key focus of the consultation document, with the Scottish Government keen to hear how the outcomes can better reflect communities across Scotland.

So, the review allows for integration of new outcomes and indicators to reflect the changing world we live in. In addition the review provides an opportunity for public, private and third sector organisations to continue (or indeed begin) to align their work against the national outcomes.

For example, Scottish Government survey results published in March 2022 highlighted five main takeaways from 426 respondents. Though not fully representative given the range of responses, one of the main insights was that just 56% of respondents stated their work contributed to the national outcomes to “a moderate or great extent”.

Greater guidance, learning and development opportunities were popular responses as to how organisations could better incorporate the NPF into their work.

Further analysis on what can be done to improve delivery of NPF outcomes and values can be found in the SPICe guest blog by the Scottish Leaders Forum in March 2022. This blog was intended to act as a high-level summary of the SLF’s action group on accountability and incentives report, with the hope that the insights contained in the report would be “a useful catalyst for all organisations to make some changes to improve accountability against the NPF”. A further guest blog looking at behavioural changes, and how these factors influence change, was also published to complement this work.   

Creating a golden thread

The Finance and Public Administration Committee completed its inquiry into how the National Outcomes shape Scottish Government policy aims and spending, and how this drives delivery at national and local level. The committee published its report in October 2022. Both the Scottish Government and COSLA separately responded to the report in December 2022.

On the review, the Committee recommended that the Scottish Government, together with COSLA, should consider providing both a communication and implementation plan setting out how greater awareness of the NPF will be delivered, and how data could be communicated on the NPF website “in light of lessons learned from communicating COVID information and data”. This mirrors findings outlined in the March 2022 survey, where respondents stated greater guidance could be issued as to how organisations could better incorporate the NPF. Recent correspondence to the Committee confirms this is part of the Government’s plans.

There was also a focus on how the NPF could be positioned as the start of a “golden thread” from which all other frameworks and strategies flow through to delivery on the ground. The Committee recommended a more explicit delivery framework, setting out clearly how the NPF will be used in setting national policy. Similarly, it recommended that all Government policies explicitly set out how they will contribute to specific NPF outcomes and their approach to monitoring and evaluating these outcomes. This would go hand in hand with strengthening accountability for delivering the National Outcomes, refocussing scrutiny of organisations to account for their contribution to delivery.

Budget alignment

Finally, the committee expressed its disappointment in the report that the NPF is not currently seen to drive financial decisions, nor is it used as a mechanism by which organisations are held to account for spending effectively.

While acknowledging that linking the Scottish Budget to outcomes is complex and that aligning with the National Outcomes could be seen as implicit in money spent on improving people’s lives, the Committee noted that the NPF needs to be used more systematically to influence decision making, if it is to be a golden thread. Part of this would be to create closer alignment of those who advise and take funding decisions in the Scottish Government regarding the NPF – though the Committee was clear that it does not support greater ringfencing of funding.

In line with the recommendations made in the SLF report, the Committee stated that this could be achieved by allocating money based on an understanding of the impact of programmes funded and their contribution to the NPF. Funding could also be used to incentivise collaborative working, and commissioning procurement and grant giving could be focussed on, and aligned with, improving outcomes linked to the NPF.

What’s next?

The Scottish Government’s consultation ran until 12 June 2023 and responses (where the respondent has given permission to do so) will be made public. All responses will be analysed and considered alongside other available evidence; which will contribute to an eventual analysis report that will be made available to the public.

The Government will then bring all the evidence together – from the consultation, the call for evidence, desk-based research and stakeholder meetings – before reporting to the Parliament on any proposed changes to the national outcomes.

Updates will be published on the Scottish Government website and SPICe will continue to monitor any developments.

Scott Mackay, Researcher, Financial Scrutiny Unit