News 29th May 2024

Playing the numbers: transparency in a minority government

Juliet Swann

Nations and Regions Programme Manager

Juliet (she/her) is based in Edinburgh and leads our work in Scotland. She also monitors Wales and Northern Ireland to identify opportunities for TI-UK in those countries. She is Chair of the Open Government Partnership Scotland Civil Society Steering Group, working collaboratively with government on transparency of and public participation in decision making.

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As the SNP settles in to life as a minority government, it seems timely to consider what approach to decision making (and recording decision making) a minority government in Holyrood might take to respect principles of transparency, openness, accountability and participation.  

Transparency of decision making in co-operation agreements  

Commonly in countries that use proportional voting systems, party manifestos make it clear which policy commitments are red lines and which might be open to compromise or negotiation as part of a coalition agreement.[1] However, in Scotland the ingrained culture of winner takes all politics seems to have prevented this level of transparency  with parties presenting their manifestos as a take it or leave it package.[2]

This means that whilst both the SNP and the Scottish Greens presented the Bute House Agreement to their party members for approval, the way priorities within it were decided is less than clear, with conversations and negotiations taken entirely behind closed doors. As a result, those voting for either party would not have been able to weigh what such an agreement to co-operate might mean for policies they were invested in with no way of knowing which bits of what they voted for would make it into the final cut.  

This lack of clarity gets murkier still when considering the information available about what is discussed when Ministers meet sector leaders, NGOs, or lobbyists, all likely to be lobbying for their political priority to go forward in any cooperation agreement. This lack of information ranges from brief summaries submitted by lobbyists recorded in the lobbying register, or one-word descriptions of ministerial portfolios in Ministerial Engagement data.  

Minority government  

Minority government means any policy that requires a vote in Holyrood will need the support of one of the other parties if it is to succeed. As we saw with a series of votes on Labour party business in Holyrood on 15 May, with no one party holding a majority the government faces losing votes, or votes being tied, with convention meaning the Presiding Officer votes for the status quo (ie inaction).  

And the vote today (29 May) on the Standards Procedures and Public Appointments Committee report regarding the complaint about Michael Matheson shows that important decisions (in this instance regarding the sanction imposed following a breach of the code of conduct and by association the integrity of the parliament), can rest on a knife edge. 

The risk with such a finely balanced chamber is that the conversations needed to secure support for policy implementation move behind closed doors. However, for the public to understand how this support has been awarded it is preferable for such negotiations to take place in plain sight. It is vital therefore that as well as external meetings held by Ministers to discuss policy choices, conversations about co-operation with opposition or backbench MSPs must also be included in the Ministerial Engagement reports. But a record alone is not enough. For this information to be useful the details of these meetings must be clear, indicating the purpose and outcomes of discussions. (Knowing the Minister for Transport had a meeting to discuss transport doesn’t help anyone).  

Another change is that opposition MSPs now find themselves wielding much greater power than before, as external players seek to influence them to support or vote down certain legislation. These attempts to influence from external organisations should also be recorded in the lobbying register. Transparency International UK has been analysing Scotland’s lobbying returns, and whilst Scotland is leaps and bounds ahead of the other nations in the UK in how it monitors lobbying, there remain weaknesses that need to be addressed.  

For instance, it isn’t currently necessary to identify a policy area or specific piece of legislation you have sought to influence. Instead, the ‘purpose’ of the meeting is free text submitted by the lobbyist. We would recommend introducing a tick box or drop-down menu of policy areas and ‘live’ legislation for lobbyists to select as part of their returns. There is also value in a requirement to report on outcomes – so if the lobbying leads to an agreed course of action that is clearly indicated.  

This would provide improved clarity for the public on how support had been won for a proposal.   

Linking datasets to improve transparency 

However, these ‘fixes’ are just one way to improve existing inadequate mechanisms of transparency. An alternative approach would be to take the opportunity to embrace the concept of a ‘transparency tracker’.   

A transparency tracker would assign a unique ID to any piece of legislation. This could be assigned at the point of a bill being introduced, or, to provide a fuller picture, the process could begin at an earlier stage, say when a consultation is launched. Any meetings held by MSPs, Ministers, SpAds or senior civil servants to discuss that legislation would be required to be marked with that unique ID. The basic facts of these discussions, alongside any consultation responses or other written submissions to parliamentary committee inquiries, would then be published monthly during the development of the legislation, linked to that unique ID. This would enable anyone interested in seeing how the legislation had developed to see all the activity linked in one place.  


Acknowledging that minority government changes where power lies and opening up information about decision making could be a genuine game changer in increasing transparency in Holyrood. This would give parliamentarians and the public more information about who is influencing policy making and how legislation is shaped.  

Additionally, it could provide a fuller picture of how and why the difficult decisions were made and increase understanding of uncomfortable choices, improving public trust in politics and politicians. 

Failing to open up risks further decline in public trust and a growth of misinformation. It also diminishes the ambitions of the Scottish Parliament to be a transparent, open, collaborative and respectful legislature, with integrity at its heart.  

[1] See for instance the Scandinavian ‘bloc’ system

[2] For more on manifesto as mandate see Mandates, Manifestos and Coalitions – UK Party Politics after 2010. Thomas Quinn. (Constitution Society, 2014)