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Power for the people can revolutionise public services – The Herald

Geoff Mawdsley
The Herald, 18 April 2008

The "evils" of the so-called postcode lottery in our public services are aired almost daily. Any evidence of difference in provision from one part of the country to another is routinely denounced as unacceptable.
Such arguments are an extremely effective means of undermining the case for decentralisation because they are used to imply that it leads to "unfairness", with some areas losing out compared with others. At the same time, they strengthen the hand of those who believe it is only through central control that high standards can be guaranteed for all.

On the face of it, this seems a plausible argument. However, it doesn\’t stand up to much scrutiny. The divergence in outcomes about which people complain has happened under the current systems of public service provision, with their array of central targets, guidelines and regulations designed to achieve consistent high standards. In practice, they have failed to achieve this, and wide disparities between the best and worst performing areas in health, education and policing exist.
For example, in the health service the median wait in Scotland at March 31, 2007, was 44 days. This varied between 65 days (for Forth Valley Health Board area) and 35 days (for Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board area). In our schools, 48% of pupils do not reach the required level E in maths by S2 in Aberdeenshire, whereas this figure rises to 62% in Dundee. And the clear-up rate for crimes is 64% in Highland and only 30% in East Renfrewshire.

These differing outcomes are a direct result of the attempt to remove diversity and limit local initiative across the country. The needs and priorities of urban and rural communities in terms of healthcare, education and policing are very different. Pretending that very different communities throughout Scotland face similar problems and challenges, and trying to manage this from the centre, makes no sense. It limits the room for manoeuvre of local communities and simply leads to the wrong solution for many parts of Scotland. This explains why there is not only a wide variation in outcomes, but also general dissatisfaction with overall standards.

It may be counter-intuitive, but the way to better, fairer services is through embracing diversity. There is no one right solution. How could there be when there is such a range of needs? Equally, there is a vast number of ways in which those needs could be catered for. Finding the right way requires a process of informed trial and error.

This is not experimentation for the sake of it. People and communities should be able to make their own decisions and offer the public new ways of doing things, which may or may not be accepted. However, this must be supported by accurate and reliable information about the results of new approaches and experiments so that we can learn from mistakes and benefit from genuine improvements.

This is where government has a crucial role to play, in ensuring a wide range of relevant information is freely available – or, as John Stuart Mill put it, "the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralisation of information and diffusion of it from the centre".

Where different approaches are adopted in different parts of the country to cater for specific local needs, it is often meaningless to talk of services being "better" or "worse". However, there will still be differences in outcomes from one part of the country to another. This will happen when a service provider adopts a new approach that turns out to be effective and which delivers improved outcomes. It is also this innovation that drives improvement across the board. As others see the improvements achieved, they will strive to emulate and surpass them, creating a virtuous circle of constant improvement which benefits the whole of society.

Reform Scotland\’s latest report, Power for the Public, sets out how we can encourage this dynamic process, which is the key to improving our public services. We want to see public services that are accountable to people and local communities and in which operational decisions are taken as close as possible to those they affect. This needs to be combined with genuine diversity in the provision of public services.

This is the modern way of supplying public services. It has delivered high standards across Europe. It is high time we debated how to implement such decentralising reform in Scotland, which is Reform Scotland\’s objective over the coming months. Read the Herald article here.

Geoff Mawdsley is director of the think tank Reform Scotland.