Decent Work in Scotland: An Agenda-Setting Analysis

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy. Click here to access the article.

New policy concepts, framing policy problems in unconventional ways and offering different perspectives and different policy solutions, often face challenging obstacles when it comes to attracting the attention of those in the policy community with the power to make policy decisions.

Our recently published research further demonstrates this, using the example of how the issue of job quality – conceptualised as ‘fair work’ and ‘decent work’ – was discussed in Scotland between 2013 and 2017. In charting how the issue of job quality developed ‘a life’ and gained traction in Scotland, and how it was ultimately blocked on its way onto the governmental agenda, we used as our analytical tool John Kingdon’s tried and tested ‘multiple streams framework’. Our aim was to understand why, despite the efforts of a variety of policy entrepreneurs and the apparent openness of the Scottish Government to the challenge of addressing job quality, the issue ultimately did not arrive squarely on the Scottish Government’s decision agenda.

What did we find out? According to Kingdon, a ‘policy window’ is required for a policy concept to be successful and make possible policy change. First, we established that between 2013 and 2016 the conditions for job quality becoming an issue to be seriously considered by the Scottish Government were more conducive than ever before. Second, however, the crucial policy window did not open due to, in particular, the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum outcome dramatically changing the political landscape in Scotland.

Regarding the first finding – the Scottish policy community was certainly fully aware of the problem around job quality and of the entanglement of the issue with wider labour market issues. For years, the Scottish labour market had been characterised by persistently high unemployment and by further problematic longer-term trends, for example endemic in-work poverty, the ‘low-pay, no-pay cycle’, and large numbers of (particularly female) workers ‘trapped’ in low-paid work. Further issues were also clear – around national minimum and living wages, skills shortages, the productivity gap, precarity and zero-hour-contracts, and the ‘gig economy’. The Scottish Government, then and now run by the Scottish National Party (SNP), seemed set on developing a more social democratic position on these issues and had developed its own ‘fair work’ agenda, with the promise of a Fair Work Commission, in the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

After the referendum, which resulted in Scotland remaining in the Union, the SNP Government continued to pursue its fair work agenda. It did so for a number of reasons. It wanted to strengthen ties to the trade union movement in order to further displace Labour as the ‘go to party’ for workers. The SNP also had sought, after the failure of the referendum, to expand powers devolved to Scotland in relation to social policy and labour market policies. Some of these powers were granted in the post-referendum negotiations, resulting in the Scotland Act 2016, but the SNP had hoped for more in terms of ‘Devo Max’.

Following these negotiations, the SNP Government wasted few opportunities to point out how the new devolution arrangement was too limited and hindered Scotland in finding ‘Scottish solutions for Scottish problems’, including those around job quality. By embracing a fair work agenda and also the decent work concept – enshrined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as of 2015 and enthusiastically endorsed by the Scottish Government – the Scottish Government could brandish its social democratic credentials while also emphasising the need for more devolved powers.

There was also persistent pressure from civil society on the Scottish Government not to drop the issue, in particular from trade unions but also from organisations such as Oxfam, themselves supporting the SDGs and emphasising the absence of ‘decent work’ for the low-paid in Scotland in particular. In other words, what Kingdon might call the ‘public mood’ was conducive to job quality – in the conceptual guises of fair and decent work – making it onto the governmental agenda.

However, the Brexit decision in mid-2016 reduced discussions around devolved powers and Scottish independence, at least temporarily, to something of a ‘sideshow’. The worries around labour market performance no longer revolved around job quality but around whether there would be an economic downturn that would destroy jobs. ‘Any job’ might soon become more important than ‘decent work’.

Our article ultimately shows that while ideas – formulated in policy concepts such as ‘decent work’ – matter in politics and policy making, they are certainly not a force in their own right. The Brexit decision created a very different political landscape in which the policy entrepreneurs active in trying to push the job quality issue onto the governmental agenda found it impossible to open a policy window to create the real foundation for policy change. This was to be the case regardless of the apparent persuasiveness of the concept for both government and the wider public. The article also further shows the utility of the multiple streams approach as a tool in analysing agenda-setting – one which takes interests, ideas and actors seriously, even in a context very different from that for which Kingdon originally devised his framework.

About the authors

Hartwig Pautz is a Lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland.

Sally Wright is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Warwick.

Chik Collins is Rector of the University of the Faroe Islands and Visiting Professor at the University of the West of Scotland.




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