5 March 2015

What might the Capabilities approach bring to public service reform in Scotland?

Richard Brunner, What Works Scotland Research Fellow, and Nick Watson,What Works Scotland Co-Director, explore the concept of 'capabilities' as a framework for public service reform. A working paper on capabilities has also been published.
The overarching purpose of What Works Scotland is to use evidence to transform public services for all of Scotlands communities to flourish. To do this we think it is important to develop and use sound concepts and methods that will enable an understanding of what works, and what doesnt in public services, that will also incorporate what this means for individuals and communities.  We want to be able to describe the impact of any new initiative, programme, or change in the way services are delivered that analyses both whether or how an intervention works and how the changes it produces are actually experienced, reminding us to focus on what public services are ultimately for to improve lived social justice.  We need a framework that will allow us to draw on different types of evidence to capture the impact of services on the lives of people, that can be participative and allow a full range of voices to be heard in the research.  

Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen have developed such a framework, called the capabilities approach. It was designed in part to counter what Sen saw as an over-reliance on economic data in much evaluative research.  It has been applied in a range of policy contexts, from development, where it has underpinned the UN Human Development Reports, to analysis of wellbeing by the Sarkozy Commission, and to equality in Britain through the Equality MeasurementFramework

The capabilities approach focuses on what people are actually able to do and be, such as their genuine opportunities to be educated, their ability to move around or to enjoy supportive social relationships. This contrasts with other accounts of wellbeing, which focus on subjective categories (such as happiness) or on the material means to well-being (such as income). Central to capabilities is the recognition that whilst resources are necessary to wellbeing they are not an end in themselves and do not, in and of themselves enable people to thrive.  In addition, people are diverse, have different notions of flourishing, and require different degrees of support in order to flourish. And different communities will require access to a range of different public service activities in order to flourish, such as protection from stigma and discrimination, feeling secure and safe inside and outside the home, or an efficient and accessible public transport system. 

We have just produced a working paper on how others have used the capabilities approach to evaluate public services. The paper shows how capabilities fits with the principles of the Christie Commission and the Scottish approach to Public Service Reform.  Using capabilities, we argue, will allow us to explore how public services across key areas of day-to-day life are impacting on people's actual wellbeing and genuine opportunities. Capabilities have a good fit with the National Performance Framework and its use will allow us to explore how improvements in attaining the Purpose Targets of economic growth, productivity, participation, population, solidarity, cohesion and sustainability set by Scotland Performs are affecting the population. It will engage Scotland Performs at the community level and help to develop a way through which public service reforms can be analysed and evaluated. 

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