Welcome to my Blog

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, 20 June 2018

Time for coordinated workforce planning

Workforce planning in Scottish local government is largely a local and ad-hoc approach, which is simply inadequate for the challenges created by austerity and will not cope with future demand. It is time to develop a more coordinated approach.

Today, I was giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Local Government Committee inquiry into workforce planning. Workforce planning is the process that organisations use to make sure that they have the right people with the right skills in the right place at the right time. 


With nine out of ten austerity job losses in Scotland in councils, the impact of job cuts on the workforce has been huge. This is highlighted in UNISON Scotland's damage series of reports in which staff describe the daily stress and plate spinning, which is how they do their best to keep services going.

Added to this we have an ageing workforce, with around 40% of the public sector workforce in Scotland likely to retire within ten years. That has huge consequences for service delivery, particularly in local government. We already have experienced staff retiring, leaving junior staff, often without the necessary skills or knowledge, to muddle through.


In this context you would have hoped that workforce planning would be high on the agenda. In practice workforce planning in Scottish local government is generally very limited, at best local and largely ad-hoc. There is some national discussion with specific professions, or when a recruitment crisis highlights specific difficulties, such as planning. There is little strategic engagement with workforce representatives across the sector.

A current example of short-term thinking is the planned closure of the Master of Public Administration programme at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh. This would leave Scotland with one MPA programme. I was in Wales recently and was impressed by their approach, while in Scotland we appear to be relying on others. Where is the next generation of public service leaders going to come from if we close down quality teaching and research programmes?

There are some local plans as well as guidance from CIPD, Audit Scotland and the Improvement Service. However, there is little national coordination, with silo working the most common approach. There have been some early attempts at a national approach in the care sector. Even here with a looming crisis, we are only at the early stages of a challenging process, given the fragmented nature of the service. 

Effective workforce planning requires access to good workforce data. Our experience of collating data shows that councils often struggle to produce even the most basic workforce data. In some councils the data is only held at departmental level and because every council has a different structure, it is very difficult to put together a national picture.

A new approach to workforce planning is required across the public sector, including local government. Service integration means that this can no longer be undertaken in silos. Here are six steps we could take:





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Thursday, 14 June 2018

Democracy matters - The Local Governance Review


Modern Scotland needs a major devolution of power, placing responsibilities and resources with citizens and communities. This means strengthening democracy through the ballot box and by giving people an active role in decision making.

In December 2017, the Scottish Government and COSLA jointly launched a Local Governance Review, which aims to make sure local communities have more say about how public services in their area are run. Last month, the Scottish Government published a suite of materials to support a highly inclusive conversation about community decision-making.

The Review brings a wide range of Scotland's public services into scope, not simply limited to local government. The first stage consultation will run until November and will focus on local engagement - how local decisions could be made more effectively. The second stage, which will have a degree of overlap, will look at how decisions are made at council level or regionally. This will bring into focus the complex structure of public service delivery in Scotland. Legislation is pencilled in for 2020 to implement any changes, although where there is local consensus change could be fast tracked under existing powers.

The commissioning partners have agreed some guiding principles and a process, but they do not, at present, share a common direction of travel for reform. The Scottish Government has been centralising services, either on a regional or national basis, together will strengthened powers of direction from the centre. Albeit with a narrative around local voice. COSLA on the other hand wants to see devolution extend further than the Scottish Parliament, down to councils and communities. Brexit is another opportunity to extend devolution locally.


The starting point for any review of local governance are the Christie Commission principles, which almost everyone remains committed to, even if the application has been a patchy in practice. The ink was barely dry on the report before services were centralised, but it sets out the case for local engagement very clearly.

There is also a growing civil society movement that makes the case for local decision making and rejects a 'one size fits all' approach to local governance. The 'Our Democracy' initiative has been holding a range of local meetings to develop some ideas and they are bringing this together at a national conference this month.

There are no shortage of ideas developed by think tanks with a good track record of supporting local governance. The IPPR, Carnegie Trust, Fabian Society, LGIU and others, have all made solid contributions to this debate. Service design could be done with citizens and front line staff adopting ideas from Systems Thinking, The Enabling State, Participatory Budgeting and Co-operative councils.There are some common themes, illustrated by practical case studies, in these reports. In short, local is best.

COSLA's Local Democracy Commission has a good analysis of why over centralisation doesn't work. They also floated some quite radical ideas around the structure of public services, pointing to the already highly centralised structure of local government in Scotland. We have fewer councils and councillors than any European country. There may well be a case for regionalisation of some services, but the building lock of local democracy should be smaller, not ever larger councils.

Unsurprisingly, I would also point to my own contribution to the debate in my 2017 Reid Foundation paper 'Public Service Reform in Scotland'. I argue that public services should be built from the bottom up based on nine principles that reform proposals should be tested against. Democratic accountability, subsidiarity, transparency, equality, effectiveness, fair work, integration, outcomes and a public sector ethos. I have recently developed some of these ideas in a new Reid Foundation paper on municipal socialism.

The latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey confirms that there is support for greater engagement. Work done with UNISON members confirms this, although there is also some cynicism that this might be just another government consultation, or a means of papering over the cracks caused by austerity. People will only give up their valuable time for engagement if they believe it will make a difference.

The voice of staff in service design was highlighted by the Christie Commission. There has been limited progress in achieving this, although staff governance initiatives in NHS Scotland and elsewhere is a step forward. I was at a meeting in Edinburgh today when the Cabinet Secretary and the President of COSLA both confirmed that staff voice was 'crucial' to the review.

So, the review is an opportunity to contribute to the debate. It couldn't be simpler to post an idea or respond to the simple open questions in the consultation paper.

As Richard Daggers put it in his 1997 book, "The virtuous citizen must be free, but not simply free to go his or her own way. Instead the citizen is free when he or she participates in the government of his or her community". We should take the opportunity of this review to make this a reality.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Rebuilding the intergenerational contract

The gulf between the earnings of younger and older people has increased by 50% in the last 20 years, leaving young workers struggling to survive. Does this mean the Intergenerational contract is breaking down?

The TUC report, Stuck at the start: young people’s experience of pay and progression, reveals that the pay gap between over and under-30s has grown from 14.5% in 1998 to 21.9% in 2017 – meaning that younger workers get on average £2.81 per hour less than their older colleagues.


And it's not only about pay. The number of 21 to 30-year-olds working in precarious, often low-paid work has exploded, particularly in private care and the hospitality sector. A YouGov poll of 1,500 young people carried out for the report found that only three in 10 felt their current job made the most of their experience and qualifications; four in 10 had been given little or no training in the last 12 months, while one in five had worked on a zero-hours contract in the last five years.

As the TUC's Frances O'Grady puts it; “We’re creating a lost generation of younger workers. Too many young people are stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs, with little opportunity to get on in life,”

So why don't young people just get organised? Some argue that young people can’t organise in the workplace because they’re too narcissistic. They can’t afford houses because they eat too many avocados. They don’t need living rooms because they’re always out eating £15 burgers. They’re anxious because they’re snowflakes.

These arguments simply miss the point. As Zoe Williams argues in the Guardian, there are structural reasons like student debt which means that buying a house is out of the question for young people who don't have the bank of mum and dad to support them. The “gig economy” is a euphemism for chronic precariousness. Internships are no more than the repudiation of the precept of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Apprenticeships are code for exploitation.

And there is no shortage of activism amongst young people. In particular, young trade unionists are at the cutting edge of new campaign techniques. They are tuned into party politics, appreciate the wider labour movement and give confident speeches to the public. Jeremy Corbyn’s overwhelming support among 18- to 24-year-olds is written off as naivety by those whom it pleases to believe that anything not resembling the status quo is unrealistic. 

The Resolution Foundation has taken a detailed look at the intergenerational contract.  Their report argues that the intergenerational contract works because everyone puts in and everyone takes out. We are happy to support and feel obligated to older generations because we believe and expect that we will be treated the same when we are old. We support children as they develop just as we were supported and nourished when we were young. 

We celebrate the good times and deal with the nation’s challenges together, across the generations. This feels natural, but that does not mean that we can take the intergenerational contract for granted. Increasingly, there is a sense that it is under threat, on pay, working conditions, housing and pensions. Young people are making no income progress and accumulating less wealth.

The recommendations in the report are politically challenging but should stimulate a debate. The costs of social care should be met by a property-based contribution towards care costs. There should be greater employment and housing security while turning around our housing crisis. A legislative framework for ‘collective defined contribution’ pensions that better share investment risk. 

Possibly the most radical recommendation is abolishing inheritance tax and replacing it with a lifetime receipts tax that is levied on recipients with fewer exemptions, a lower tax-free allowance and lower tax rates. The extra revenues should support a £10,000 ‘citizen’s inheritance’ – a restricted-use asset endowment to all young adults to support skills, entrepreneurship, housing and pension saving. This would be an important step towards breaking intergenerational inequality.


People are increasingly concerned about the prospects of other generations within their families and communities, and electoral turnout gaps by age are narrowing. We need a policy agenda that addresses the concerns of both old and young, and in so doing rebuilds the intergenerational contract. We need to step up to the challenge of building a sustainable society.