Joint government pitfalls offer warning to SNP and Greens

INVALUABLE lessons for the SNP and Scottish Greens on how to work together in government have been revealed in newly released cabinet archives.

They show Holyrood’s first joint government, the Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition of 1999 to 2007, experienced “unforeseen difficulties” in putting its plans into action.

The problems were set out in a memo to the Scottish cabinet written by the government’s top civil servant, the then Permanent Secretary Sir John Elvidge.

At the time, September 2006, the two parties were contemplating working together for a third term after the 2007 elections – they would be ousted by Alex Salmond and the SNP. 

Sir John’s memo offers lessons the Scottish Greens in particular may want to heed.

Reviewing how the partnership agreement had worked, he said problems had arisen in four key areas: a focus on targets and inputs rather than outcomes; a lack of published costs attached to commitments; imprecise wording of commitments; and the need to be flexible given circumstances were “likely to change rapidly” over the course of the coalition.

Sir John said the absence of published costs was a “weakness” that had “made it very difficult to prioritise budget spend”, adding: “This issue would be particularly critical in any future Partnership negotiations taking place in a much tighter financial climate”.

The published SNP-Green deal contains specific spending commitments of around £9.5bn, less than four per cent of the £247bn budget officially forecast for the current parliament.

He also said having four high level themes in the Partnership Agreement – growing the economy, delivering excellent public services, supporting communities, and developing a confident, democratic Scotland – hadn’t been much use in practice.

“This did not seem to help with ordering commitments in a way which made them more manageable to deliver,” he wrote.

“In particular, the Partnership Agreement did not distinguish clearly between outcomes, i.e. where we want to be and lower level targets or inputs which set out how we plan to get there.”

The deal struck between Nicola Sturgeon and Green co-leaders Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie in August has building a “greener, fairer, independent Scotland” as its overarching theme.

Sir John also said that “in a number of cases there has not been a clear shared understanding over exactly what a commitment means”, and suggested setting down clear criteria for judging whether a commitment had been met, whether fully or substantially.

The need to be flexible and respond to events also created a tension between the need to be seen to stick to the original plan.

Treating the wording of the agreement as “sacrosanct” meant new policies had been set up in parallel outside it and “this could lead to confusion and impede policy delivery”.

Sir John suggested building in more flexibility to avoid the public thinking “commitments are being altered to avoid failure”, and having regular reviews to flag up commitments which had become unachieveable because of circumstances beyond the Executive’s control.

In the ministerial discussion after the presentation, First Minister Jack McConnell stressed “no assumptions were beind made about the outcome of the forthcoming elections”.

The cabinet “noted the lessons learnt” in order to achieve “good governance”.

Other cabinet minutes from June 2006 show Labour finance minister Tom Mcabe admitting there had been “genuine difficulties” delivering a small number of commitments, and asking ministers to ensure “the narrative around these was as helpful as possible”.

The cabinet suggested “a more appropriate form of words should be found for those commitments currently described as ‘impossible to be achieved’.”

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