Welcome to my Blog

I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Building better public services

Public service reform should be built from the bottom up through local democracy rather than centralisation. However, no reforms will be effective unless they are fully funded.

I have written a number of articles recently on the broad issue of public service reform. In this blog post I will attempt to knit them together to illustrate a theme around local democracy and fair funding.

In the journal 'Scottish Policy Now' I set out an overview of progress with the Christie Commission recommendations on the future delivery of public service. While there has been progress, I argue that on local design, preventative spending and workforce strategy; Scotland is missing out on real opportunities.

In a column in The Scotsman, I focused on a specific Christie recommendation - the importance of engaging staff and service users in the design of public services. Four years on, we still have centralisation, ring-fencing and top down targets. I also point to the systems thinking author John Seddon's latest book that clearly sets out the evidence for a different approach. If managers and politicians actually followed through a citizen's request through their systems they would be horrified. Some of these issues are also highlighted in UNISON Scotland's latest survey of staff working in transactional services.

Local government has borne the brunt of austerity in Scotland an issue I explored in an article in the Morning Star this week. Four out of five jobs lost have been in councils and ConDem austerity has been exacerbated by the regressive Council Tax freeze. While finance is vital, my main theme was that councils must act as strong local voices. All too often they are the passive administrators of cuts.

Finally, we return to funding public services. I contributed a chapter to the latest Red Paper publication on the implications of Devo-Max for Scotland's public services. I understand the case for independence, I might even have voted for it myself, but Devo-Max or Full Fiscal Accountability would be a disaster for public services in Scotland. I explain what Devo-Max is and the main criticisms of it. Put simply, devolved administrations want relatively stable income and expenditure. UNISON and other unions said this long before the oil price crash sharply illustrated the point. Since I wrote this chapter, the IFS has updated their calculations based on the SNP manifesto proposals and they would deliver huge cuts in public services and jobs. Barnett may not be perfect, but abandoning it is a huge gamble.

Having said that, this doesn't mean we should accept the limitations of the Smith Commission proposals. In the same Red Paper chapter I set out how we could improve public services with further devolution. Progressive federalism is right for Scotland and the rest of the UK. Labour should also be bolder on ending austerity.

The general election is obviously vital for public services, primarily to end Tory austerity. However, wider consideration of public service reform will not go away and most of those difficult decisions are made in Scotland.