Prepare public sector staff for change, says Ian Elliott
AS THE political debate on independence heats up, the question of how Scotland’s public sector will support its workforce post-referendum, regardless of the outcome, in the face of unprecedented change and continued spending cuts is being largely ignored by both sides of the debate.
Looking at the other devolved parts of the UK may give us some insight into the challenges that lie ahead. The Northern Ireland Assembly has introduced a Local Government Bill that will see the 26 district councils reduced to 11 so-called super councils. In Wales, the Williams Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery could lead to the number of councils being reduced from 22 to between six and 11. Currently Scotland has 32 local authorities, but we should not assume that Scotland will remain immune from the pressures that are driving structural reform across the other devolved parts of the UK.
Ultimately, regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum, come 19 September the hard work of policy implementation will start and major structural change to the public sector landscape in Scotland is inevitable. We need to prepare our public sector workers, not only to cope but to flourish on our behalf in shaping this new landscape.
Yet right now this isn’t happening. In fact, the last year has seen the number of public sector jobs reduced by 1,200, according to the Scottish Government. Those who remain in the public sector are seeing their training and development budgets come under increasing pressure.
Whilst we may need to go easier on the public purse, cuts in training and education opportunities for our public servants could cost us dearly. Yet this is exactly what is happening – particularly so when compared with the private sector. Whilst only 28 per cent of private sector organisations have seen a reduction in their training budget, in the public sector this figure is 52 per cent.
What’s more, public sector organisations have over the last few years typically had much lower training budgets to start with. The median training budget in the public sector is £250 per employee, whereas in the private sector it is £333.
Public service reform is already creating a more complex public sector landscape with more shared services between public bodies; more partnership working, including involvement of the private and third sectors in public service delivery; and more data sharing and development of digital public services and smart cities. Good governance is vital to maintaining proper levels of transparency and accountability in order to avoid the tragic consequences of governance failure, as was seen last year in Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust and Morecambe Bay NHS Trust.
Queen Margaret University is the only university in the UK to offer a postgraduate programme in public services governance. Recently we worked with the Welsh government to deliver our programme to public servants. Academi Wales, the leadership development arm of the Welsh government, believes that in doing so they will increase capability amongst existing senior public servants and will also assist succession planning and building skills for the future.
QMU’s Postgraduate Certificate takes into account the most recent policy developments in public services governance. Issues such as public finance, leading change and communications are all explored using examples of good practice and cutting-edge research. The programme is delivered with a blend of face-to-face and online learning to fit around the busy working lives of public service workers. It is proving very helpful to be able to share experiences from across the devolved governments.
Scotland has many higher education and further education institutions capable of supporting public sector employers to develop their workforces. If we have any hope of attracting and retaining the best people to create and provide the standard of public services we deserve, then employers need to be prepared to fight hard to protect their training and education budgets. After all, the future of our public services, and a significant part of the Scottish economy, is in their hands.
• Dr Ian Elliott is programme director of the Executive Masters in Public Services Management, in the School of Arts, Social Sciences and Management at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh www.qmu.ac.uk