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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.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

New economic reality?

I was speaking at the Holyrood conference 'The New Economic Reality' today in Edinburgh. There was a very good range of speakers for this event with a focus on ideas, rather than a  sales pitch from contractors peddling privatisation. An approach all too common at conferences like this.

The Permanent Secretary, Sir Peter Housden kicked off the conference with a broad overview of the future direction for Scotland's public services. He is fairly new in post and therefore it was interesting to get his take on the position in Scotland after running an English department for a number of years. As you would expect there was much about the opportunities as well as the threats. I suspect most frontline staff facing the savage cuts would receive all this with a large degree of scepticism. However, in fairness he appears to have a good grasp of the importance of people in delivering change, rather than simple number crunching, systems etc. A recognition that people come to work to do a good job and a committed workforce can make a difference.

The Auditor General, Robert Black gave us the numbers and the predictable plea for more information to drive change. I am always sceptical about the benefits of this when you see how much staff time can be diverted from service delivery to collate this data.

Much about co-production and user engagement from three different speakers on reshaping public services. There was a helpful recognition that this is what many public service professionals, like social workers, do every day. Plus an understanding that it takes time, effort and resources to develop meaningful engagement and even longer for co-production.

In a session on delivering more with less we had Sue Bruce the new Chief Executive at Edinburgh Council. Sadly, a predictable enthusiasm for alternative delivery models including some woolly talk about social enterprise. Pity she wasn't at the morning session to hear Peter Housden talk about evidence led policy, because she certainly didn't offer any. She wondered why staff seem reluctant to offer innovative ideas. Well if you promote outsourcing it doesn't show much confidence in your staff, so they might not have much confidence in you.

She was followed by an instructive history lesson in public service reform from Eddie Frizzell and an entertaining, if not particularly informative, presentation from Barry Quirk. He has the resplendent title of Local Government Efficiency Champion at SOLACE.

Finally my own contribution on engaging the workforce. I started by questioning what the new economic reality was. With a pay freeze, job cuts, attacks on conditions and pensions at a time when the bankers who caused the mess are paying themselves massive bonuses - please don't tell staff 'we are all in this together'.

I ran through the conventional approaches including outsourcing, shared services and expecting the voluntary sector to pick up the pieces. If the tax dodging accountancy firms and their big corporation clients think the Cayman Islands is such a great place to do business, then why don't they seek public sector contracts there instead of Scotland?

I explained the difference between the market realm and the public realm. The market realm plays by different rules and they don't share our public service service ethos. A new generation of senior public service managers have to relearn the lessons of the 1980's. As one council manager who found this out the hard way said to me recently; "these people are not your friends".

I also pointed out that there are no new ideas - just the old ones rehashed. I recently did a session at a US conference (by video link) and was preceded by a US management consultant extolling the benefits of insourcing! Backed up by case studies of US companies who are abandoning outsourcing for many of the reasons we talk about every day. I was negotiating shared services in the private sector ten years ago and only now are they discovering the real transaction and displacement costs.

Finally, I set out a new approach to public service delivery based on integrated service delivery, as local as practicable. An approach that views delivery from the service users perspective, not top down centralising promoted by many under the guise of economies of scale. An effective change process has leaders who give staff the freedom to design the service they deliver and give them the space to do so with a degree of job security.

Encouragingly, there was a significant degree of consistency from the better speakers on this type of approach. Not quite a consensus yet as old approaches were also in evidence today. But some hope that we can develop a different approach in Scotland that reflects our public service ethos. 

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