This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

It’s a fact of life that politicians over-promise and under-deliver. 

In the eternal hunt for votes, they try to appeal to as many audiences as possible with as many messages as they can juggle. 

Once in power, they quickly find delivering things is far harder than announcing them. 

There isn’t enough money or time or talent to do it all, so they generally try to make a decent fist of their priorities and hope their omissions are forgiven.

They also make some lousy choices.

The UK Government let the HS2 rail line balloon in price then cancelled key elements late in the day, leaving people wondering where the billions went and why.

The Scottish Government approved an order for two CalMac ferries in 2015 that are yet to sail and are likely to cost £300m more than planned. 

Everyone will have a favourite example of bad government in Edinburgh and in London.

But is there something going especially awry north of the border? Is the governance of Scotland falling down in more ways than might be expected?

That was the subject of an intriguing seminar held by the Our Scottish Future (OSF) think tank in Edinburgh today.

It coincided with the publication of its new report, A Little Less Conversation: Closing Scotland’s Implementation Gap. Implementation gap being jargon for the difference between what the Scottish Government promises and what it actually does.

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First, the disclaimer. OSF was set up by former Labour PM Gordon Brown and is pro-Union in outlook. It is no admirer of the SNP or nationalism in general.

But strip out some of the digs in the report, and there is still enough to stimulate a fair-minded debate, including plenty of figures to back up some of the contentions.

Like the Scottish Government publishing more than 500 strategies and running almost 700 consultations in the last decade, many going over old ground to little avail while costing charities, quangos and the third sector a small fortune to respond to.

Or the seemingly inexorable bloat of Scottish ministers, from 18 under Alex Salmond in 2007 to 30 under Humza Yousaf today. A rise accompanied by an inevitable fall in the number of backbench MSPs available to fill committees and scrutinise the government. 

It has had little obvious benefit. On the contrary, it has led to more ministers demanding things to announce, adding to that glut of half-baked consultations and strategies.

There is also an overarching thesis that many on both sides of the constitutional argument will recognise – that all is not well in the Scottish political realm. Polls show Scots are pessimistic about the economy and NHS and feel the country is stuck in a rut.

The Herald: The number of Scottish ministers has went from 18 under Alex Salmond to 30 under Humza YousafThe number of Scottish ministers has went from 18 under Alex Salmond to 30 under Humza Yousaf (Image: Newsquest)
Perhaps not surprisingly, OSF pins a lot of blame on the pursuit of independence.

However it doesn’t quibble about it being a valid political objective.

Rather, it argues the decade since 2014 has led to a kind of paralysis in which problems are downplayed and long-term decisions deferred because a second referendum is seen as always just around the corner, a game-changing event that overshadows everything else.

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This has led to the Scottish Government refusing to collaborate with Westminster in order to appear different but at the expense of efficiency. Think of the recent Scottish census mess.

It has also made “Scotland’s political establishment” cowardly and lazy.

The constitutional divide has not only distracted politicians and officials from more immediate concerns, it has become “a useful tool to put off hard decisions”, OSF argues.

Politicians who play the pro- and anti-Union card the hardest know they can largely get elected on the back of tribal votes. There is no great punishment for failing to deliver policies or for failing to develop alternatives, and no great reward for long-term decisions which become enmeshed in the constitutional culture wars.  

“We have, collectively, lacked the focus and the courage to follow through on the policy choices we say we want to make,” the OSF says.

It is a bleak picture, but not hard to recognise.

OSF proposes fewer ministers, better scrutiny at Holyrood, new delivery units and greater cooperation across all tiers of UK government as an initial fix for some of these problems.

But best of all, it says, “would be a generation of leaders determined to pick Scotland out of its current rut, and change its political culture from one that prizes big talk to one that prizes bigger actions”. I suspect that most people, whether Yes or No-minded, would agree.