Next week is the tenth anniversary of the report of the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, known as the Christie Commission. I spent six months working as an expert advisor to the Commission. Sadly, while the principles of the Christie Commission are widely quoted, the delivery has been patchy at best.
At the time, the Commission's public finance predictions were regarded as pretty grim. However, due to the political choices by the UK Government, which we now call austerity, the cuts were even more severe in practice. The long-term trends around the demand for public services and the impact of demographic change have proved all too accurate. Equally important to the Commission was growing inequality between the top and the bottom 20% in income, employment, and health outcomes. The consequences of disadvantage impose financial costs on public services, estimated at 40%+ of local public service spending. They also recognised the crucial contribution public services made to the Scottish economy and tackled the myth that public services are a drag on economic progress. Sadly forgotten during austerity with consequential damage to the Scottish economy.
The Commission identified problems with public service delivery, including fragmented authority and operational duplication, coupled with a top-down approach that designs services for individuals rather than with them. The recommended solutions focused on allowing services and communities to work together to decide what needs to be done, making the best use of all the resources available - taking an integrated long term, preventative approach. Staff should be empowered by leaders to actively seek innovative solutions with a strengthened public service ethos and common training for all staff based on enabling and empowering the lives of people and communities.
Ten years on, public service challenges look pretty similar, with the obvious addition of pandemic recovery following on from austerity economics, which created the longest recovery from recession on record. Scotland’s deep-seated inequalities remain largely untouched, and child poverty has increased. Demographic change has only partially been alleviated by increased migration, even that is under threat from Brexit and UK Government immigration policies. Austerity has savagely reduced the public service workforce, particularly in local government, forcing staff to abandon the critical Christie approach of prevention and revert to the statutory minimum at best.
Integration has been limited, even in the vital area of social care. The idea that all public service organisations operating in a local authority area should view themselves as part of a common framework hasn’t happened. The silos that Christie sought to bring down are very much in place. Instead of a bottom-up approach based on empowerment, we have seen the centralisation of services.
Five years after Christie, I wrote a paper for the Reid Foundation on public service reform. This built on the Christie principles with a call to build integrated public services around recognisable communities, based on the principle of subsidiarity with service delivery at the lowest practical level. I argued that the role of the central government should be to set the strategic direction based on outcomes – rather than trying to direct services from Edinburgh. Government should agree on frameworks that allow the local to focus on what matters. This should include a public sector ethos and fair work principles embodied in a national workforce framework. The single public service worker could minimise organisational and professional barriers and provide confidence for staff to engage in service redesign.
As we look to build back better after the pandemic, the principles of integration, prevention empowerment and subsidiarity look as relevant as ever. The question as ever is the political will to make the necessary changes. I hope I won’t be writing a similar blog in 2031, but I wouldn't bet on it!