The report of the Commission on Future Delivery of Public Services, chaired by Campbell Christie, was published today. I will declare an interest on the grounds that I was an expert advisor to the Commission. That doesn't mean I agree with every proposition in the report, but I do believe that it offers a credible road map to reform. You can read my UNISON Scotland briefing on the report for a summary and our initial response.
This report isn't a quick fix. Anyone expecting short term proposal for cuts or maps setting out boundary reorganisations, will be disappointed. It sets out principles of reform over the medium to long term. It is also firmly based on the Scottish public service model. No marketisation or Big Society here. As Campbell Christie said at the launch, this report is firmly based on collective responsibility and social justice. The report states that "Public services are central to the fair and just society to which we aspire."
Scotland's biggest problem is that we don't have a fair and just society. That's why the report emphasises the importance of tackling inequality, both income and discrimination inequality. Not just because of the cost, although that is important because some 40% of public spending addresses the failure to prevent negative outcomes for the bottom 20% of society. But also because we know from international evidence (Spirit Level et al) that more equal societies do better on all counts. So it is vital for all of us.
The report sets out the huge financial challenges caused by the ConDem cuts, but also the demand pressures caused by the recession and demographic change. No reform of public services can possibly bridge the £60bn+ gap and the report recognises that public service reform is only part of the solution. There is a better way to tackle the deficit and we should look there for those solutions.
There is a lot in the report on engagement with people and communities in the delivery of services. Probably too much, as you could be forgiven for thinking this was a report on community development - not public services. None the less, involving people and communities in the design and delivery of public services is an important principle and one that UNISON has long argued for. In doing this we need to recognise the limitations of this approach to certain services and the willingness and capacity of people and communities to participate. The report is very clear that this approach is not a replacement for mainstream services, in contrast to the Big Society in England.
The biggest idea in the report is service integration. I was personally struck by the number of staff who flagged this up at Commission events, and while we saw some good examples, they were the exception rather than the rule. Making it happen is trickier and the report goes for changes in the statutory and policy requirements, together with carrot and stick incentives. The most radical option, Single Public Authorities, is flagged up as a possible direction of travel that should be piloted.
Bottom up solutions also apply to workforce engagement and the report is helpful in pointing to a different approach from the top down solutions currently being promoted. Whilst I am always wary of promoting any management theory as a panacea, I do believe that we can learn a lot from the very practical approaches in systems thinking. The Commission has reflected that view in the report.
It is self evident that public services should be effective and efficient. However, this is often viewed as an opportunity for those who argue for the privatisation of public services. There are no such proposals in the report. UNISON's recent report on outsourcing in England shows that more than half of councils have or are considering bringing contracts back in house. Hardly surprising after the BT fiasco in Liverpool and the Southern Cross debacle. One third of the Scottish budget already goes to the private and voluntary sector and the report recommends competitive neutrality, but as defined in the OFT evidence, only when competition takes place. That is actually already a legal requirement before any outsourcers get excited. They will also have to open their organisations to transparency if they want to bid for public contracts.
The report does not comment specifically on the current consultations for police and fire services that promote national organisations. However, the criteria for reform makes it very clear that the Commission favours locally integrated solutions.
No doubt there will be those who describe the report as weak on hard solutions. It is true that it deliberately avoids some contentious political issues like the Council Tax freeze, universal services etc. These are political decisions and politicians are rightly accountable to the electorate for them.
However, I would argue that, for those who read carefully, this report is more radical than it first appears. Even if we didn't face huge financial pressures there is a compelling case for tackling some of Scotland's deep rooted problems. This is the first time anyone has looked across Scotland's public services, instead of a particular silo, and recommended a different way of working. Initially it is mostly about rewiring the system, that could lead to longer term structural change. But one based on local democracy, not centralisation.