The Key Ideas

#13 Establish a system of National Policy Academies which would be centres of excellence of new thinking in key areas of public policy

At the moment Scotland is not enormously well served with the infrastructure for creating new public policy thinking. It has few think tanks and they're poorly funded. Academia has not engaged in creating new ideas for public policy to anything like the degree it might want to. Scotland's political parties do not have particularly strong policy capacity and other institutions like trade unions have often focussed on producing critiques of existing policy. This has left the civil service as the institution which is tasked with doing much of Scotland's original thinking. For a country with so much thinking capacity in its institutions it is disappointing that we don't have a richer debate about policy.

It is therefore proposed that Scotland should create a series of National Policy Academies. Each would cover a major area of public policy (such as ‘housing, town planning and transport’ or ‘policing, criminal justice and community safety’). Some might cover more operationally-focussed thinking (the centre for excellence in service and organisation design suggested above, a centre for good practice in participatory democracy discussed in chapter seven). Each would be attached to a university, and the civil service would second a significant proportion of its staff to these Academies, working closely with academics and people from civil society (organisations might second some of their staff for specific projects). Importantly, these would be open, public institutions. The purpose would be to take the thinking about public policy out of the 'black box' where people only get to see consultations and final decisions. Academies would be democratically governed and all of the work would be free for everyone to see and to engage with. Interested members of the public would find easy routes for taking ideas to the Academies, working with a variety of people to develop potentially radical proposals.

In turn, the civil service would no longer undertake blue-sky thinking and would focus on being an implementation agency. Government (and others involved with public policy such as political parties) would then source blue-sky thinking from Academies by posing them problems or questions and asking for solutions and answers. Academies need not give back a single, unified and universally agreed answer, but might send back a range of options or a broad solution with a range of different approaches. Certainly, disagreement or doubt about precisely the best way to do things would not be seen as a weakness in an Academy.

Then of course it would be for the democratically elected government to decide which view to implement, whether to agree with the idea at all, whether to send the idea back for further work, or whether to do something else altogether. Whatever the outcome, the process of doing this thinking collectively and in public would greatly enrich Scotland's democracy and its 'collective intellect'.