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More power for the public is the key to better services

Scotland must introduce radical new ways of delivering public services that offer real value for money, a new independent think tank says today.

A study by Reform Scotland shows that in spite of a huge increase in government spending over the past 10 years, improvements in public services have failed to keep pace with those in other European countries, including England.

While there are many aspects of public services in Scotland of which we can be proud, our research clearly shows that with the right approach we have the potential to do very much better,’ said Reform Scotland chairman Ben Thomson.

In a report entitled ‘Power for the Public’, Reform Scotland calls for:

  • More direct, local accountability so that services are more responsive to the needs and wishes of people and local communities.
  • Greater decentralisation of public services so that operational decisions are taken as close as possible to the people they affect.
  • Increased diversity of provision, which can mean different approaches in different areas as well as a wider range of service providers.

The report makes it clear that by any standard, Scottish taxpayers are not receiving best value for money from public services.
The total Scottish budget has grown in real terms by 44% over the last decade to £30 billion. During the same period, spending on health, education and justice – which together account for nearly half [47%] of the total budget – rose by 55%, 87% and 44% respectively.

\’Despite the large increase in resources, and expenditure levels as a percentage of GDP on a par with other European countries, public services in Scotland have produced mixed results,\’ says the report.

Although there have been improvements in life expectancy, waiting lists have reduced and mortality rates for major diseases have improved, the report says Scotland compares poorly with some of her European neighbours, including England. Attainment in schools has also increased, yet not as fast as in other countries, again including England.

Unlike health and education, though, crime rates in Scotland have been far more negative. The report says total crimes and offences have increased by 14% over 10 years, including rises in violence and anti-social behaviour.

Reform Scotland’s research looked at other countries to examine common features of successful healthcare, education and policing systems in a bid to pinpoint how Scotland might catch up. In general they found:

  • Where public services are accountable to people and local communities, they enjoy high levels of satisfaction.
  • Systems that devolve management responsibility towards the operating level provide more effective and cheaper services.
  • Greater diversity of provision leads to increased customer choice and improved standards, for example the education systems in the Netherlands or Sweden.

The report says that with schools, for example, it is not necessary for government to be both the funder and deliverer; that head teachers and governing bodies need to be more accountable to parents rather than to government officials, and that competition between schools for pupils drives up standards.

In healthcare, services have stronger incentives to respond to the needs of patients, which is a key driver of innovation and quality.

And in policing, the report says Scotland can learn much from the New York experience where crime rates have been slashed thanks largely to radical decentralisation, greater local accountability and zero tolerance.

The organisation published its first report ‘Powers for Growth’ last month [March] and plans to publish more detailed research papers on how Scotland can grow its economy and improve public services over the coming year.

Ben Thomson, Chairman of Reform Scotland, said: ‘The challenge for Scotland is clear. In common with our economic growth rate, the performance of our main public services trails that of many comparable countries.

If we aspire to have public services which match those of other countries then we need to be open to new ideas. Other countries have found better ways of providing public services, whilst guaranteeing universal access regardless of ability to pay.

We need to learn these lessons and apply those that are appropriate. That will ensure that people in Scotland receive the services they have a right to expect and that our public services are truly the envy of the world.