Services are struggling with the loss of senior staff, says Tom McGhee
Across Scotland, local authorities continue to deliver increased services with reduced budgets, leading to serious concerns over resources for some of the most vulnerable in our society – particularly children and young people with additional support needs.
Recent years have seen many talented people in senior roles in local authorities taking early retirement packages, as many authorities made difficult decisions in order to reconcile budgets.
In some cases, losing experienced people has made the delivery of services within reduced budgets much harder.
Not only are many of the skilled, knowledgeable people needed to make services work no longer there – the people who remain are left wrangling with ever-increasing workloads as a result.
Many of our best and brightest work for local authorities, motivated by a commitment to public service, and to the needs of children.
Local authorities don’t have the luxury of being able to deliver single products or services and, with so much to deliver against a backdrop of reduced budgets, a new approach is required if we are to continue to provide the level of children’s services that are essential for our future.
That approach should use the advantages that local authorities bring through local democracy, as well as services completely focused on the needs of users, better attuned to local needs.
As a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC), we would argue that children and young people’s services need the advantages local authorities bring now more than ever, but allied as well to a new sense of urgency in finding alternate ways to deliver better services for them.
Scotland’s local authorities could soon be the trail blazers in finding new ways to deliver children’s services more cost effectively, more efficiently, and with better outcomes.
To do so requires the key leaders in local government to make themselves open to change and to lead on it.
In terms of children’s residential services, we already have a situation whereby the independent sector gains better grades than those of local authority-owned services.
Recent moves to competitively tender many children’s services are to be applauded, but local authorities’ own services must be asked to fairly compete in this as well, with bids assessed by panels independent of the local authority funders. Local authority children’s services need to objectively and fairly assess what their services actually cost in comparison to the independent sector, encompassing all costs.
Above all, the key leaders in local authorities, who in some areas of Scotland are already starting to create new, innovative delivery models for services, need to be encouraged and applauded as they seek to develop new and more cost-effective solutions to the issues children and young people face.
As well as competitive tendering involving all services, improved children’s services can be achieved by stronger partnerships with the third sector and private organisations, where relationships are founded based upon mutual respect.
We can create better services for our children and young people if key figures in local government are encouraged to find new, best-value ways to deliver services, and to develop relationships with partner organisations they like, trust and can work with.
Take for example Spark North East, a joint venture partnership between Stockton borough council in the north-east of England and Spark of Genius – a true partnership aimed at finding the most cost-effective way to provide excellent services for Stockton’s looked after children at significantly reduced cost to the authority.
It started off life as a standard tender, and developed into a new way to provide residential care and education.
Although not without its issues, it is now well on the road to success. As well as excellent care and education, at a lower cost to the local authority, 150 local jobs are in the process of being created through it.
The vulnerable children and young people we exist to serve need us to build on the public service ethic of the local authorities with new ideas and new approaches.
Step forward, the leaders of change.
• Tom McGhee is a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition www.thescsc.org.uk