From blog hits, it’s clear that dissection of the Christie Report makes less than riveting reading for our readers. But we make no apology for this instalment—nor for one more to come (anorak it may be, but it matters, guys). In the first four parts we’ve examined: the state we’re in (I); the recommendations (II); medicine for the NHS juggernaut (III); and public sector workers’ increasingly bolshy stance (IV). What we are considering today is, given ‘parity of esteem’ between government and councils, if “physician, heal thyself“ is a plausible, or even sensible, directive to councils.
Councils have a poor record of self-analysis and none on constructive reorganisation. They fought both 1976 and the 1996 UK-government-driven re-organisations tooth and nail. Since then, the net number of senior managers, which ballooned under the expanding budgets up to 2008, has failed to drop in the more stringent times since. And, while setting up Arm’s Length Executive Organisations (ALEOs) has shown some new thinking in places as diverse as Glasgow and East Lothian, the bulk of council business is still integral and by departments congruous with the council area.
After the 2007 change in most council administrations (and given a boost by the subsequent financial debacle) many councils formed local task forces to explore shared services (ELBF around Edinburgh and Clyde Valley Partnership around Glasgow). There were also efforts at national co-operation like Scotland Excel to combine purchasing and joint efforts for Stirling/Clacks and East/Midlothian to share back office and central control of Education and Children’s Services. All this was supported by CoSLA, the Improvement Service and the Scottish Government.
So, four years on, where are the victories, the better services, the streamlined delivery, let alone the savings? So far, bupkiss; zilch; nada. Stirling and Clacks have tied the knot and East/Midlothian may do so this year but any impact will be seen next year. Scotland Excel has a staff over 100 and is indeed driving down the cost of paper clips but councils still insist on buying big Tonka Toy trucks with their own special fixtures so worrying about the pennies while the pounds flood out the door makes SE’s £3.7m cost look like spend to spend more than to save.
But most telling has been the total failure of shared services—where one council provides all the service to another for a charge (ideally less than the original service cost). While Scottish Borders does get many roads contracts from elsewhere, nothing like a real shared service exists. Why 32 payroll departments or housing advice or welfare rights or a myriad back-office functions need be repeated in every city hall across Scotland is unclear. But ask a director and they will say “my department’s very efficient and we would not get that service from somewhere else”. Ask, if it’s that good then, why it cannot be sold as a service to another council and you get “they require a different specification and it would cost us money to run two systems”.
Despite three years of dire warnings from government and their administrations about budget cuts, it is not the staff—bolshy or no—who are the problem. It is the Heads of Service (on £80k+), backed up by their Directors (on £100k+) who, having enjoyed cushy 5% increments to budgets for a decade simply seem incapable of appropriate action. Across Scotland, we pay council senior management teams £100m; we are not getting our money’s worth. Drastic as wholesale government intervention may be, heads will need to roll pour encourager les autres. Public service management, never having seen calamitous times, badly needs a crash course in dealing with them.