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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, 27 March 2013

How to strengthen joint working across services



I was in parliament today giving evidence to the Local Government Committee on public service reform and shared services in particular. With half the panel from the voluntary sector it did rather focus on their legitimate woes, but perhaps missed the wider reform issues in the Committee's call for evidence. There is more to local government than the care sector.

There was a good debate on the barriers to collaboration of the sort identified in the Christie Commission report. In my view we are only just moving away from the big top down shared services model that seeks to separate front and back office services. It may be yesterday's fad, but a lot of effort and resources have been wasted chasing a model that doesn't work. In our written evidence we show why, with many examples of failure.

This failed model does highlight other barriers to greater cooperation. All too often reform is planned in high level groups far removed from the staff who deliver services or the communities who use the service. There is good evidence that shows a link between staff engagement and user satisfaction. Projects have often been too large and as the LGIU study shows small really is beautiful. We need to design services from the bottom up using Systems Thinking and other approaches.

Procurement is another barrier. There is too much emphasis on contracts and not enough on agreements that avoid the complexity of EU procurement rules. The care sector is a good example of procurement that is introducing marketisation, fragmentation and a race to the bottom in quality of care. Best Value is becoming almost entirely focused on cost. However, the big charity sector doesn't do it's case any favours with silly comments about in-house retrenchment. With 35,000 fewer council workers in Scotland since the crash it certainly doesn't feel that way! We also need to distinguish between big delivery providers in the third sector and community engagement. They are not the same thing!

Another barrier is the absence of a staffing framework for organisational change. We constantly reinvent the wheel at national and local level. Staff would be more willing and able to work collaboratively if this was resolved. In our written evidence we have outlined what might be included in such a framework. There were some good points about the need for different approaches by staff working in disadvantaged areas and this type of flexibility might be achievable within a framework.

There were complaints about officials 'doing things' to communities and not being flexible enough. The Christie Commission identified many of the statutory barriers to joint working but little has been done to address the different performance management and statutory duties that officials have to abide by in their own silos. There is limited capacity in some disadvantaged communities to engage in the way middle class, mostly rural areas have with community development. Although even then good examples are limited. Officials are accountable for public money and, 'I was being flexible', is not in my experience a successful defence in a disciplinary hearing when it all goes wrong. Not to mention being summoned to a committee of MSPs to explain their actions!

So my plea to the committee is to focus on some practical measures to improve joint working rather than chase shadows. Better service design by engaging with staff, reform procurement practice, common statutory duties and support a workforce framework. Then we might get the sort of joint working across the public sector that the Christie Commission envisaged.







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