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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.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Staffing targets are the wrong approach for public service

Staffing targets are the wrong approach to public service reform. In the run up to the UK general election, political parties are tripping over themselves with commitments on the number of nurses, police officers, teachers etc. We need a more grown up understanding of what makes a real difference to public service delivery.

 

We tell ourselves that the independence referendum was a zenith for political debate. Scotland led by example with village halls and community centre’s bulging at the seams, with families, friends and communities engaged in informed debate on social and economic policy. We say it was empowering, engaging and exciting. We are the most politically informed populace in the world.

 

If true, this has to be the time to show it. Scotland needs a grown up debate like never before. Not just where powers lie or who is more left wing or more Scottish than who? But what kind of country do we want to live in and how do we want to be governed and are we willing to make the decisions to make that happen?

 

The downside of this type of political pledge is the whole debate becomes a stats trading war on nurses, doctors, police, and teachers rather than a real debate on public service improvement.

 

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy kicked off with an announcement that if elected he will introduce 1,000 extra nurses. Of course our NHS needs more nurses. But the NHS is a large complex organisation seeing increased demands on the whole staff team not just in the NHS but in local government and voluntary sector too.

 

The real national disgrace in the care sector is in homecare. Today’s ‘Seen something? Say something’ campaign on adult harm is very welcome. However, we have large numbers of homecare workers scared to report abuse because they are on zero or notional hour’s contracts.

 

The NHS cannot improve if we neglect the staff who provide social and community care. Social workers, home carers, occupational therapists and others reduce queues at A&E through early intervention and they free up hospital beds by providing personal care at home.

 

It is equally ridiculous for political parties to compete on police numbers. The SNPs pledge to keep an extra 1000 police officers; or to maintain 17,234 police officers in Scotland has been a disaster.

 

If we truly are the most politically educated populace we will know that the chances of a bobby on the beat catching a house burglar as he is climbing through a window is the stuff of The Beano. Crime has been reduced to its lowest level ever by finger print officers, crime scene investigators, anti-fraud officers, intelligence analysts, forensics, custody officers, and many more working with the police. These people have high technical skills. They all help keep us safe.

 

But right now Police Scotland is cutting £1bn from the police budgets. Our police officers are politically protected so who else is going to lose out? Of course its the said civilian staff who work with Police fighting crime.

 

This is actually the worst kind of politics, and should not be tolerated by one of the most politically educated people in the world. Surely we understand that taking police officers off operational duties to cover for civilian specialists, at twice the cost, makes a mockery of Best Value?

 

Last week’s political spat was about teacher numbers. Teacher ratios are just one way of protecting educational standards. There is little point in having better teacher ratios if classroom assistants or administrative support are being cut. The Scottish Government rightly takes credit for reducing ring-fencing of local government. So why reintroduce a policy that says we in Edinburgh know best how to deliver education in every community.

 

It’s another unhelpful focus solely in inputs. The Christie Commission said we should put a focus on outcomes. In reality we need to ensure that we have the right range of inputs and sound processes that lead to the outputs that will deliver better outcomes.

 

We are clearly building up to the same debate on early years and childcare. Parties are queuing up to out do each other on promises of who can deliver the most hours, to the most children, at the lowest cost. Where is the debate on flexibility, women in work, work life balance, gender and childcare, the links between schools and nurseries and quality of provision. And whether we should provide early years childcare with low paid private sector staff.

 

Public services are complex and joined up. Staff need properly rewarded and trained, and yes, that costs money. We cannot have the public services we all say we want, and pay less tax. Scandamerica is an insult to our intelligence.

 

We need to properly debate the council tax freeze. It cannot continue. It is the wrong policy at the wrong time. We have had 40,000 job losses in local government in recent years, there are 40,000 more job cuts in the pipeline. Surely we should at least have an honest debate about fairer local property tax accepting there will be winners and losers.

 

We need to seriously debate our public services and how we reward those who deliver them. We need to debate austerity and how it is decimating our public services dragging the economy down. Simplistic calls on staffing targets don’t help. If we can have a grown up debate, then perhaps we really can call ourselves one of the most politically informed countries in the world.

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