hanging Aberdeenshire’s relationship with alcohol is a Local Outcomes Improvement Plan (LOIP) priority for Aberdeenshire Community Planning Partnership.
In this blog post, Wayne Gault, Lead Officer with the Aberdeenshire Alcohol and Drug Partnership, reflects on how the Partnership approached the priority, what they have learnt from the experience, and what it means for practice.
My aspiration had been to inspire the imagination of as many different stakeholders across as wide a field as possible to help change Aberdeenshire’s relationship with alcohol. This was because something as nebulous and ‘wicked’ as culture relating to something as engrained and omnipresent as ‘alcohol’ was unlikely to have any silver bullets. Even if it did, there would be few people who would want to fire such a bullet.
Capturing the interest of CPP partners about something that might be peripheral to their core business was always going to be difficult as partners inevitably have an already full agenda of commitments. Making the case on an objective, rational basis or telling a compelling story about why the alcohol topic was relevant to them wasn’t sufficient. In fact, being too driven could come across as intrusive, resulting in important partners becoming less inclined to engage. A case in point would be the alcohol licensing aspects of the agenda.
From evidence-informed policy and practice…
Initially, I assessed that our alcohol licensing mission was simply to obtain the facts about the health and social impact of alcohol sales in Aberdeenshire and present these to the licensing boards and licensing fora so as to justify improved controls on the award of off-sales licences 
in order to minimise population-level alcohol consumption. This simple approach seemed to work with the licensing fora but didn’t work with the licensing boards.
I made the mistake of thinking I simply hadn’t got my message across adequately because some board members did not appear to accept public health as a legitimate goal of licensing policy. I compounded my mistake by allowing my frustration that the public health evidence did not result in the hoped-for outcomes to lead to a more assertive approach that, with the benefit of hindsight, could easily have come across as hectoring if not naïve.
…to longer-term relationship-building and shared dialogue
Over time, it became clearer that a rational policy planning approach wasn’t adequate and my approach had to evolve. I had not sufficiently appreciated the complexities Licensing Board members  and Clerks to the Board  had to contend with. By being focused on improving our data collection, analysis and presentation of evidence, I’d inadvertently put some relationships under needless pressure. That realisation was a turning point. Since then, our approach has been to strengthen relationships, seek to understand before being understood, to be more patient and to balance our needs against that of other partners.
For example, in conjunction with various partners, we recently delivered a Licensing Matters event, targeted at licence holders. The foci was the five licensing objectives . It was organised and delivered in partnership with a wide range of stakeholders and emphasised the need to have a more rounded understanding of the role that each partner had and that no one partner could have delivered the event successfully alone. The event focused on practical issues affecting licence holders around the five licensing objectives and related duties, whilst promoting and educating on the multi-agency approach to licensing.
I delivered a session on the objective ‘protecting children and young people from harm’ and had been keen to ensure the message was moderated sufficiently to enable the audience to hear it without rejecting a potentially threatening message out of hand. We were delighted to have more than 120 attendees and received very positive feedback. A key lesson for me was that my assumption that the trade wouldn’t tolerate our message was unfounded. Discussions at the end of the event showed a nuanced understanding of the balance to be struck between commercial interests and public protection interests. The quality of the pre-planning, execution and post-event debrief had in my mind built more trust and confidence that the partners have a better understanding of each other’s perspectives.
Developing policy and practice across Scotland
However it may be that, despite its initial promise, licensing may not actually be as powerful a vehicle to contribute to cultural change as we had first envisioned. Since our initial experience, academics have explored how public health practitioners have engaged with the licensing system . It appears that my learning journey has been common across Scotland and with the benefit of hindsight, could have been bypassed if we had had a better appreciation of licensing as a political rather than a scientific process.
I’m now no less enthusiastic to ensure we meet Aberdeenshire’s aspirations to change our relationship with alcohol; I’m just more aware of the risk of that enthusiasm getting in the way and inadvertently making it harder to develop the positive relationships essential to success.
The Aberdeenshire Alcohol and Drug Partnership’s work to tackle this LOIP priority is one of the case studies in the collaborative research report Inquiring into Multi-layered, Preventative Partnership, available now on the What Works Scotland website.
Reference list: Wayne Gault. 2018. Retrieved from http://whatworksscotland.blogspot.com/2018/04/changing-alcohol-culture-developing-our-loip-priority.html