When Robert Black, Scotland's first auditor general, told a parliamentary committee last week that a "passionate interest in the good of Scotland" inspired his ideas for the transformation of public services, political ears should have pricked up, rather than been covered up.
Freed from the constraints of office, Black has poured the experience of decades into a brilliantly readable David Hume Institute paper, entitled From Good To Great By 2020. Careful to stress the achievements of the Scottish Parliament, and the quality of officials, he leaves no doubt of flaws born in the complacent "years of plenty", and of the immaturity of policy debate in this small but fractious nation.
An optimist and non-combatant in the independence battle, he suggests that, regardless of its constitutional fate, Scotland could either become an international exemplar of public service reform or sink into mediocrity. He quotes Paul Krugman's dictum that "nothing counts as much to a country's wellbeing than productivity growth", while pointing out how little we know about Scotland's performance – let alone how little we can affect outcomes in government, schools and hospitals.
Unlike the Nordic countries described in last week's Economist as "awash with the blood of sacred cows", the Scottish Government is disinclined to try radical routes to preserving public services at the levels Scots expect. The one idea it holds to consistently – blaming Westminster austerity – is unlikely to work for them politically, and is irrelevant economically, as the task is to minimise the drag of what Black calls "coasting or underperforming organisations". Repeatedly telling how London constrains us is less persuasive than showing how a self-confident Scotland might implement bold new ideas, such as a Scottish Commission on resources and performance.
John Swinney's unwillingness to consider the transformational proposals of wise counsellors such as Crawford Beveridge or Robert Black, suggests that, for him, reducing risks to a Yes vote trumps attacking the root causes of underperformance. For him, the referendum stakes are thus especially high.