Like it or not, the debate on Public Services is being shaken up today by the publication of the Christie Commission on Future Delivery of Public Services. Having been wrestling with this particular Hydra for the last four years, I feel it’s not before time to take a serious look at what is the biggest single segment of the Scottish economy. The ‘steer‘ we already had was that public service is “in urgent need of sustained reform”, an assertion with which I would agree. However, significant numbers (a majority?) of public services workers and (most especially) their unions emphatically do not.
This, in itself, gets us off on the wrong foot. That is compounded by public service supporting fundamental, sensitive areas of life, like health, social service, welfare and education, as well as ‘luxuries’ like hanging baskets and flower beds. Add in that those fundamentals serve as pitches upon which political football is played and the idea of a rational, objective debate on it all might appear to be wishful thinking.
One thing for which we can be grateful to the recession is in forcing radical rethinking across the whole segment in a way the smug, cash-rich noughties never contemplated. This is no longer just about efficiencies, it’s about dismantling Victorian machinery of government and making it fit for 21st century purpose. The fact that the Scottish Government promised to protect the health budget should not obscure that it is first in line. It is reprehensible that the NHS employs so many third-rate administrators while front-line nurse and midwife numbers are contracting as consultant numbers rise.
But the Commission’s plan to “break-up of the bureaucratic empires governing health and social care” begs a number of questions. Social Work is handled by individual councils and there is certainly an argument for merging such departments for economy of scale, as was once the case with Scotland’s regions. But the councils we have are notorious for being neither local, nor responsive and Health Boards are rightly cited as especially remote; they are large and have no accountability but to ministers. To take GCC Social Work and simply glue it onto Greater Glasgow Health Board would be a huge mistake, akin to cross-breeding a camel with a polar bear in the hope of producing a Snowcat.
There are really three issues that must be resolved. The first is that any public service must have real public accountability. The NHS, Enterprise and Water have none; Police and Fire might as well have none. Elected, city-scale bodies make the most sense in such cases, as they do for transport, strategic planning, social work and education. We have no such bodies. What we do have are are a rabble of little quango empires like SESTRANS that get little attention, not least because they achieve little.
But before we go resurrecting Strathclyde, the second vital element required is a huge cultural shift in the workforce. There are front-line workers across all public service who are unsung heroes. But too many, especially in distant offices, are petty despots of the “aye been” school of thinking. Even those with no malice show poor understanding of what the public needs—even less the relatively new (at least to Scotland) concept of customer service.
The third and final element is the elected representative. Councils and their equivalents have been riddled with patronage and dead wood that make bureaucrats seem dynamic by comparison. If we are to have publicly accountable, efficient public services, that must start with strategic direction, provided by elected members. So far, despite a positive shift since 2007, that is not yet uniformly the case.
Over the next week look here for further details on Christie and how things might evolve.