For the past five years, I have had the privilege of chairing the Enterprise and Skills Strategic Board (ESSB). As it transitions to become the Delivery Board for the National Strategy for Economic Transformation, I thought it important that we set out for our successors the lessons we have learned as well as recording some of our achievements.
The ESSB was established following the Enterprise and Skills Review. It had identified the need to enhance the impact of the enterprise and skills agencies on Scotland's economic performance. Central to that was achieving what Lorne Crerar in his review termed the 'hard alignment' of the agencies. That task was given to the ESSB and our response was the Strategic Plan, 'Working Collaboratively for a Better Scotland', published in 2018.
The Plan consisted of two parts. First, drawing on evidence about factors on which Scotland needed to focus to improve its economic performance. We identified four 'missions' and asked the agencies to undertake them jointly. These missions reflected the imperative of having the right skills in the workforce, boosting the number of new and growing businesses, and exporting; while the fourth recognised the potentially important role of workplace innovation and of 'fair work' in business performance. Later, the ESSB augmented the missions with a request to the agencies to improve the returns to investment in innovation.
Secondly, the Plan set out two mechanisms for achieving greater alignment and impact: coordination of the agencies' planning processes and ministerial Letters of Guidance, and common approaches to measuring the effects of their activities.
While admirable progress has been made, the job has not been finished. In each of the missions, further progress is required, especially in business creation and growth and in innovation. The ESSB pioneered measurement of the impacts of post-school education and training and put in place the building blocks for beginning to understand the impact of spending on innovation. The Delivery Board should build on this work and make clear to all with an interest in the effective use of taxpayers' money the benefits that flow from the costs that are incurred. That will assist the Delivery Board in understanding where resources are best deployed to obtain the results that Scotland needs.
The ESSB frequently harboured a concern that, while they could undoubtedly have greater impact, the agencies were sometimes being asked to do too much. Ministers typically ask them to do more, rarely to do less and almost never to stop activities. That must lead on occasion to a lack of focus and a dilution of effort. While it is wholly appropriate that the agencies are accountable to ministers, they often find themselves accountable to multiple ministers, which can contribute to uncertainty about priorities. Similarly, the often short tenure and consequent frequent changes of senior civil servants can mean a lack of continuity for agency executives and boards, which inevitably limits impact. In this context, the fact that the National Strategy for Economic Transformation adopts a ten-year horizon is encouraging. That ought to allow all parties – not just the enterprise and skills agencies but all parts of the Scottish Government – to adopt a long-term perspective and a consistent approach to achieving the objectives. Those benefits are more likely if lines of accountability are clear and consistent and there is greater continuity of senior personnel. I encourage the Delivery Board to pay particular attention to these matters.
An important feature of the ESSB has been the diversity of voices it has convened and the range of opinions to which it has listened. In particular, the ESSB has brought the voice of business to bear on the work of the agencies and of the Scottish Government. An important lesson is that among Industry Leadership Groups, which ESSB carried out a review into, and similar bodies, there are experienced, knowledgeable and committed people who can offer insights as to how economic and business performance can be improved. If it engages with them, the Delivery Board will surely benefit from their advice and the system will benefit from better two-way channels of communication to develop change.
It will be important to continue to promote a culture where change is accepted. Change needs to be understood and welcomed through the whole system structure and developed at every level – stakeholders, agencies and government – so everyone understands their responsibilities to contribute to plans and work more effectively across the system. Clarity around roles, responsibilities and accountabilities, as well as consistency of communication is a clear message to the Delivery Board.
I would like to thank all of those who have served as members of the ESSB for their dedication and commitment. I have been fortunate to have worked with a group that has willingly given of its time and enabled the enterprise and skills system to benefit from its insights and expertise. They have done so in an open, collaborative and constructive spirit and our successes and impact are down to them.
To the new Delivery Board, we wish you every success. You will be able to build on our work over the last five years. And we stand ready to provide support on the basis of our experiences should you wish it.
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