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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.

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.

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