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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Public sector survival strategies

I was speaking last night at a Fraser of Allander/Herald Group seminar on the subject, Survival Strategies: The Scottish public sector in crisis.  The panel of speakers also included Sir John Arbuthnott, John MacLaren and Alex Linkston.

When presented with a title like this I like to start by questioning the proposal. If there is a crisis it is certainly not one of the public sector's making. Expenditure cuts by the UK Government are an ideological response to the deficit caused by corporate greed. As the latest economic figures show they are cutting too much - too fast. Nick Clegg may have had a Damascine conversion because of the Greek debt crisis, but the UK is not Greece and we can manage the deficit in a way that won't seriously damage our vital services. I outlined a series of ways that we can strengthen the public finances by tackling tax avoidance, introducing fair taxation and cutting out real waste.

That doesn't mean that that there are not challenges for the public realm. We are facing these cuts at a time when demographic change is starting to place significant new costs onto our public services. So even without this ideological attack there is a need to look carefully at how we deliver public services. The Christie Commission is doing this in Scotland and I have written a discussion brief for UNISON branches that is available on our website. 

My starting point was that we need an active state, not an enabling one. This state starts with extending democratic accountability, not just through direct elections important though that is, but by meaningful user engagement. Delivery should be as local as practical and should be an integrated service. There is a real risk that diversity of suppliers leads us to the 19th Century version of the Big Society. The Liberal government of that period came up with an integrated solution, its called local government!

My key message was that we need to stop looking at delivery models from a top down perspective. The management consultant approach with their centralising, off the shelf, latest fad solutions should be eschewed for a new approach that starts with sorting out the service users needs, first time and locally. This means abandoning the idea of front office/back office splits, huge public service factories personified by much, but not all, of the shared services agenda. This simply drives unnecessary transactions as the service users problems are passed around the system. There is much in the ideas of systems thinking, co-production and even public value theory that we can adopt to evidence the benefits of this approach. More importantly we should be tapping into the knowledge, skills and commitment of thousands of public service workers who daily deal with service users.

This approach would recognise the value of national standards and promote best practice without the straitjacket that the system of targets and scrutiny has become. It should also be underpinned by a new public service ethos.

On structures, I cautioned against the rush to start redrawing boundaries as some sort of magical solution. It may be attractive to some politicians because it gives the appearance of action, but structure should follow form and the focus should be delivery models not structures. By looking at local user demand coupled with new forms of user engagement we can develop meaningful community plans. The perceived wisdom is that we should merge councils and health boards into ever bigger units. I am not convinced. I pointed to Norway, a country with similar population and geography to Scotland that has 430 local and 19 regional councils.

The title of my presentation was 'Survival of the Fittest'. The mostly academic and business audience might have been surprised that someone like me, from the political left, would appear to promote this capitalist mantra. However, my meaning of the phrase comes from the the Russian Anarchist, Peter Kropotkin. In his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution he set out his analysis leading to the conclusion that the fittest was not necessarily the best at competing individually, but often the community made up of those best at working together. Now that is a better way!

Update - 31 January
Good summary of the event in the Herald today

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