Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Ross Martin: Single-minded approach to public service reform

Published in the Herald on 24 June 2011

"With so many other concerns on its mind, one might wonder whether the Scottish public would clamber over itself to discuss the finer points of public service reform.

But as the Centre for the Study of Public Policy’s Big Event demonstrated yesterday, something is stirring in the public sector woods, and it’s not only the funding axe men going about their budget-cutting business. If one cares to look, the reforming wood can be seen emerging from branches of the traditional public service family tree. A quiet revolution in the way Scotland’s public services are designed and delivered is under way and it is coming to a council, a health board and the police service near you.

All over the country local political leaders who have had enough of national policy inertia have decided that change must happen now. Driven by the deep descent of public spending which looms so large on the near horizon, these local leaders have stepped up to the political plate and are beginning to deliver real change, designed to make public services more efficient, more effective and more responsive to the public they serve.

Step forward Stephen Hagan, leader of Orkney Islands Council, who is driving the concept of the single public authority (SPA). This concept would see all public services on Orkney combined into a single unified structure, with integrated services provided by one chief executive, one management team and held to account through one direct line of democratic accountability. All public services would be designed and delivered on the islands, including the big two of health and local government, working under this new unified structure.

This model, in three different forms, is being pursued separately by each of the island areas: Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles, with local variations of service design, delivery mechanism and democratic structure all under discussion. By gaining control of the public spend each of these three island areas is looking to protect and improve services, support local jobs and strengthen career structures, especially during these times of economic constraint.

Other public services, designed locally or regionally, would also be the responsibility of these three new integrated authorities, potentially including all transport links, from ferry routes to flight schedules. The enterprise function, currently held by Highlands & Islands Enterprise, is another candidate for this decentralisation drive, as is responsibility for tourism, now the preserve of Visit Scotland.

In addition, where regional or national public service is not localised, but maintains a spending footprint on the islands, it could be held to greater account by these three new integrated bodies, for example through the appearance of senior agency executives in front of each SPA’s committee of inquiry. This would considerably strengthen all islanders’ ability to hold to account and better co-ordinate spend of the public pound by bodies such as Scottish Water, Scottish Natural Heritage and Historic Scotland.

Of course, the centralisation of the Scottish police service would be immeasurably strengthened if operational control was devolved out to divisional level with boundaries co-terminous to that of each island area. This decentralising approach is equally applicable to all other parts of the emergency services, whether currently provided on a local, regional, national or UK basis. In fact amalgamation could create much stronger career structures in each of the three island areas.

This is only one part of the emerging public service jigsaw puzzle being examined at the CSPP’s Big Event. Under the critical eye of global consultancy firm Deloitte, and with involvement from a wide range of senior players from across Scotland’s public service family, this event allowed members of the public to analyse different pieces of the puzzle and place them in the emerging picture. They liked what they saw.

Another fine example, described in passionate detail by Councillor Iain Robertson, of West Dunbartonshire Council, was the reality that we don’t need to redraw the lines on the local government map in order to see councils within recognisable parts of the country work much more closely together. One Ayrshire, One Renfrewshire or even One Dunbartonshire can become a reality by simply merging services such as education or social work, in the way that others, for example Clackmananshire and Stirling or East/Midlothian, already do.

A third piece in this emerging public service picture is of course that of the city region. Learning the lessons from Manchester and the metropolitan area surrounding that great city, Scotland’s six cities, all incidentally now working together on the development of a range of urban policy initiatives, are also actively engaged in looking to better co-ordinate public services with their regional partners.

Of course, the Highland Council area covers its own city region, Glasgow and Edinburgh are surrounded by a number of partner administrative areas, Dundee and Aberdeen have fewer and Stirling has a particular set of relationships, sitting as it does in the heart of central Scotland. These particular pieces of the public service reform jigsaw puzzle have a high degree of commonality, but significant local variation as well.

This local diversity is the central feature of the emerging public service picture, but as it has been developing our parliamentarians in Holyrood have often appeared unwilling to see, or are even unaware, that things were changing about them as they refused to discuss any significant change before their election earlier this year. Not any more. A positive impact of having 22 “dual mandate” MSPs is that their knowledge and experience of change at the local level far outstrips that of many of their non-councillor counterparts in the Scottish Parliament.

Many of the new intake have had their sleeves rolled up delivering change at the local level. Let’s hope that they are keen to complete the jigsaw puzzle, working together to deliver real and lasting change for the better, all across Scotland’s public service family".

Ross Martin is policy director of the CSPP.

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