UNISON's Scottish Council meeting this morning, our regular gathering of branches across Scotland.
UNISON's General Secretary, Dave Prentis addressed the meeting and took as his theme the Cinderella services, those public services that are essential to our communities but rarely get the attention they deserve. Everyone can identify the nurse, paramedic or refuse collector, but fewer recognise the staff that enable them to deliver their essential roles.
We have always argued against the artificial frontline/back office divide that many politicians like to use. The delivery of public services is a team effort and the 'frontline' could not operate without a range of support services. In the main these services are in any case pretty lean. I was looking at a couple of reports this week that analysed the cost of administration in the emergency services and was struck by how low administration was as a proportion of total costs. Significantly lower than my experience of similar costs in the private sector.
There was an interesting piece by Professor Richard Kerley in the latest edition of Holyrood magazine on this point. He questioned how efficient all the new systems that reduce admin and force operational staff to carry out functions that used to be done by admin staff. He used the example of 1970's TV cop dramas in which police officers are seen banging away with one finger on a typewriter. Ironically given the current Scottish Government policy we could be heading back that way.
I call this displacement cost and I have seen it in the private sector when shared services are introduced. Tasks that used to be done by low paid clerical staff are replaced by a processing centre and online systems. The result is that vital time is taken up by 'frontline' staff to undertake these functions. They do it less well and at greater cost. The Finance Director may claim a big saving, but operational departments pay the real price. If we are taking a long look at public service reform, this is one area we need to review carefully.
As an aside this was our Scottish Secretary, Matt Smith's last Scottish Council before he moves on to new challenges - he is very clear that he is not retiring. Good thing too, because Matt's contribution to the movement over some 37 years has been outstanding. We will miss him but I am sure he will continue to make an outstanding contribution to public service.