Professor James Mitchell

Director, Academy of Government



  • even without Brexit, public services face a challenging backdrop even without Brexit;
  • public services will continue to be delivered every day against this difficult, resource-demanding Brexit contact;
  • there is a gulf between public opinion and service leaders contributing to a major capability-expectations gap and a noxious blame game;
  • the complex interdependencies and two-level game involved in negotiations create difficulties for public service interests to insinuate themselves into discussions;
  • Brexit is a process not an event with uncertainty as its principal feature;
  • information/intelligence gathering from the various parts of this two level game is more necessary now as this process unfolds than ever before.

We live in turbulent economic and political times, even apart from Brexit.  This turbulence was a major theme of January’s annual world economic forum at Davos.   There has been a weakening of confidence in the capacity of governments at all levels and across much of the world to deliver for the people.  Whether the political turbulence witnessed last year was a belated response to the economic turbulence of the 2007/08 Great Recession or caused by longer-term trends, there seems little reason to believe that economic or political turbulence is at an end.

The predictive capacity of the social sciences has been challenged and a healthy dose of Humean scepticism (scepticism of the Humean variety is the antithesis of the much discussed prefixed scepticism of current debates) is in order.

Many liberal democracies face similar challenges which would have existed even without this turbulence.  Some challenges, by no means exhaustive, faced in Scotland are summarised below.


The combination of these challenges plus political and economic turbulence has created capability-expectations gaps in government capacity.  Much attention is paid to the tendency of voters to want Scandinavian levels of welfare and US levels of taxation.  This relates to the gap between public expectations and the capacity of governments to deliver caused in large measure by an electoral bidding game and the adversarial claims and counter claims around delivery.

Gutmann and Thompson identified the clash of campaign and governing mindsets in their The Spirit of Compromise (Princeton University Press) and we can see the cyclical culmination of the process in which campaigning crowds out governing in the Trumpian style of government.

Capability-Expectations Gap


One consequence is an even more troublesome blame game.  Though not a major aspect of his study of the blame game, Chris Hood noted that ‘systems of divided government and complex multi-level government structures may offer more opportunities for blame-shifting in the sideways and up-and-down directions than simpler structures’ (Princeton 2011: 43).  Add in the prospect of uncertainty and change involved in the Brexit process plus the above mentioned turbulence and we have the potential for a particularly noxious blame game.


A major concern for policy makers is yet another gap.  As research conducted for CIPFCA last year showed, there was then and likely continues to be a significant gap between public opinion and the opinion of public service leaders on the public policy implications of Brexit. As Tim Shipman vividly illustrates in his study of the Brexit referendum, that debate essentially focused on a battle between economic and immigration narratives.  Public services were marginalised in the debate.


All of this places Theresa May’s Government in a very difficult position.  Her Government is caught between many rocks and many hard places in a complex two level game (Putnam 1988).  Domestic pressures, sectoral and geographic, will compete for attention in the Brexit negotiations.  Highly specialist elite interests, including the City of London, and populist anti-immigration impulses will need to be managed in the context of negotiations with the EU and EU27.

Insinuating other interests into this two level game will require considerable leadership skills, continuously refreshed information and intelligence, agility to take advantage when windows of opportunities open (however briefly) and, in all probability, a lot of luck.


The scope of public policies affected is immense.  There was little agreement during the referendum on the EU’s competence – the much debated ‘competence creep’ – and it is hard to quantify this.  Whether it is Bill Cash’s claim that 50% of economic laws come from Brussels, Chuka Umunna’s suggestion that ‘around half of all new regulation’ emanates from Brussels or the House of Commons library reference to 5000 EU regulations, what is clear is that the EU has been intimately involved in public policy across a vast swathe of policy areas.

The notion that Brexit simply means removing a tier of government misunderstands the nature of the complex interdependencies.  Put crudely, and drawing on the classic analogy in the study of federalism, EU policy-making and implementation conforms as much to the metaphor of the marble cake as the layered cake.  Removing one ‘tier’ has complex implications throughout the system of government.

The care sector illustrates challenges for public services as a consequence of Brexit.  The ‘chronic difficulties’ in recruitment and retention of care staff noted over a decade ago have not disappeared.  Reliance on EU citizens varies across the UK (Cangiano et al. 2009) with particular challenges in London.  The role played by European citizens in the care sector has been considerable, including from the A8 EU states, the very people in the focus of anti-immigrant populist demands.  The combination of an ageing population, the considerable contribution from EU nationals to the care sector and the aforementioned populist impulses require attention.

A question frequently asked by public service providers is what advantages might arise in the Brexit process.  Turning a challenge into an opportunity is perhaps the greatest leadership test.  The opportunities that arise, which could easily become threats if mishandled, might be categorised under three headings: re-allocating powers; regulatory reforms; and funding.

The process of ‘repatriating’ powers has stimulated debate on whether certain powers might accrue to devolved of UK central government but there has been less consideration of whether there may be scope for devolving further to local government.  Amongst some supporters of Brexit, including key UK Ministers, there is an assumption that Brexit is an opportunity for deregulation and a temptation, at least in the short term, to simply transpose existing EU regulations directly.  But there is the third option of regulatory reform.  EU procurement regulations are commonly described as ‘bureaucratic’ and ‘heavy-handed’.  They are criticised for making it difficult to ‘buy local’ while the proportion of public contracts awarded to non-domestic suppliers is very small.  There is an opportunity to revise procurement rules to minimise bureaucracy while ensuring value for money is maintained.  Similar considerations exist for state aids.  Euro-funding remains important and commitments have been made in the short-term to continuation of such funding but a number of issues need to resolved.

Once more, an option exists to minimise of what is perceived to be heavy-handed bureaucratic controls.  Commitments have been made to the continuation of funding in th short-term but the likelihood is that UK Government will resist extending this until the full public financial implications of Brexit are known but, of course, these commitments will join a long queue and a strong voice in YUK Government will see Brexit as an opportunity to ‘roll back the state’.  This creates an unpredictable situation in which planning becomes more challenging. 

‘In democratic political systems, public office holders make choices about such diverse matters as the allocation of budgets, the enforcement of laws and the introduction of new technologies.  Then key personnel from the public and private sectors seek to influence these decisions and help carry them out.  Even though most of these decisions pass unnoticed by the media and the general public, the policies governments produce are probably more significant for ordinary citizens than the effervescence of much political debate.  While highly profiled subjects, such as stories of political corruption, the personalities of political leaders, and changes in opinion polls, are important aspects of contemporary political life and deserve attention, citizens are more likely to be affected by such prosaic matters as the quality of education in schools, the performance of the economy, the efficiency of the public healthcare system, and the state of the sewage disposal infrastructure.’ (John 2012: 1)

Debate on Brexit during the referendum was framed in a manner that marginalised its implications for public services.  The challenge will be to ensure those matters descrbed by Peter John as being ‘more significant for ordinary citizens than the effervescence of much political debate’ (John 2012: 1).


Cangiano, A., I. Shutes, S. Spencer, and G. Leeson (2009), ‘Migrant Care Workers in Ageing Societies: Research Finding in the UK’, Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford, Oxford.

Gutmann, Amy and Thompson, Dennis (2012), The Spirit of Compromise, Princeton. New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Hood, Christopher (2013), The Blame Game: Spin, Bureaucracy, and Self-Preservation in Government, Princeton. New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

John, Peter (2012), Analyzing Public Policy, Abingdon, Oxon, Routledge 2nd edition

Putnam, Robert (1988). ‘Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games’, International Organization, vol.42, pp.427–460

Shipman, Tim (2016), All Out War: the full story of how Brexit sank Britain’s Political Class, London, HarperCollins.

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