‘A path to empowerment’ – Third Force News

This article by Geoff Mawdsley appeared in Third Force News.

The Christie Commission Report on the Future Delivery of Public Services in Scotland is a welcome contribution to this debate which acknowledges both the systemic shortcomings in current services and the need for reform.  However, more importantly, the report makes it clear that such reform of public services is not just about saving money.  It is not difficult to save money by simply cutting back on services.  But that is not what we are trying to achieve.  What we should be focussed on is how we can provide better value for money, so that whatever the level of budget, a more effective service can be delivered.

In this respect, The Christie Commission Report points us in the right direction since it wishes to put empowering individuals and local communities at the heart of this reform process.  That is in keeping with our analysis that policy in Scotland in relation to public services has been dominated by centralising assumptions and top down performance management.

This centralising approach has not worked well because the attempt to impose uniform solutions from the centre ignores the fact that local communities and people are different.  Their variety of needs and priorities has meant that this approach has often delivered the wrong solution for people in Scotland.

This is hardly surprising since it is impossible for those at the centre to have the necessary knowledge to direct services effectively and appropriately for all parts of the country.  Equally, centrally-directed services encourage uniformity and are, therefore, less likely to lead to the innovation necessary to raise standards.

When Reform Scotland looked at other western European countries, we found that many were already going in a different direction to us, decentralising services and introducing greater variation, flexibility and personalisation in the way services are run and delivered.  This is the key to better value for money and higher standards.

The Christie Commission recommended involving individuals and communities in the design and delivery of services.  We would support that, but we need to go further.  To be effective, public services should be accountable to those that use them, whether that be local communities or individuals. Such decentralisation will lead to better public services because they will be more responsive to the needs and wishes of the communities and people that rely on them.

We think greater accountability to local people and communities starts with giving local authorities in Scotland much greater autonomy and responsibility for the delivery of public services.

While the Scottish Parliament would still play a vital role in areas such as ensuring the fair allocation of funding, guaranteeing access to vital public services and overseeing core standards, local councils should have the central responsibility for most public services.  However, for this reform to be effective, it must be combined with giving councils much greater responsibility for raising their own revenue.

This will enable councils to decide for themselves how particular services should be provided or whether they should be provided directly by them at all.  It would create a framework in which councils try to find the right balance between what they do themselves and what is done by others such as the voluntary sector.  There is no perfect balance, appropriate at all times and in all parts of Scotland.  However, councils would have a genuine incentive to come up with the right balance and provide the highest quality of public services at the lowest cost.

We think this greater autonomy for local authorities would also help to achieve some of the Christie Commission’s other recommendations.  For example, it would give councils an incentive to integrate service provision or share services where it led to better outcomes and provided better value for money.  Greater financial responsibility should also encourage a longer-term outlook to service provision with a greater emphasis on the type of preventative spending that is a core theme of the Christie Commission report.

For us though, decentralising reform doesn’t end at the level of the local authority and we need to look at ways in which people can be empowered by giving them greater choice in relation to public services.

So, for example, in social care more of those assessed as in need should be given the opportunity to receive their entitlement in the form of a direct payment to allow them to choose the care that suits them best.  This would help to ensure a level playing field in the provision of such services and would particularly help to expand the role of the voluntary sector which has enormous expertise in this area.  This principle could then be extended into other public services so that people could choose the provision best suited to their needs.

Such enhanced choice needs to be combined with a wider range of providers as exist in most other western European countries.  This is in tune with the SCVO report ‘Quality through Diversity’ which stressed that diversity of provision is the key to both higher quality and greater efficiency in the use of resources.

Where there is diversity in provision, providers focus on the needs of the service user as if they don’t people have the opportunity to go elsewhere.  This gives them a real incentive to find new, better ways of providing a service and this small-scale process of trial and error is the best way to find out what works, leading others to follow and thereby driving up standards

The Christie Commission rightly highlights the need for reform of our public services.  What we now need is an open-minded discussion about how we take this process forward.  For us, that means the empowerment of people and communities so that they control the way in which public services develop.  Such a path will provide an enormous opportunity to the voluntary sector and offers the prospect of better public services for the benefit of us all.

One of Reform Scotland’s aims as an organisation is to set out ways in which we might improve public services in Scotland.  To this end, we have published reports looking at the broad principles which we believe should underpin public service reform as well as specific proposals in relation to key services such as health, education, policing and local government.  In addition, we have examined how the role of the voluntary sector could be expanded in the provision of services.