Stephen Osborne: Six steps to healthier service

THE quality of public services in Scotland can only be enhanced by a genuinely Scottish system that links funding and delivery, writes Stephen Osborne

Much of the recent debate about the impact of independence upon Scotland has concentrated on the macro-economic and political issues. What has had less profile is its potential impact upon local public services. This is unfortunate, as it is these issues that make a real difference to the quality of life in communities. It is, therefore, legitimate to ask: could an independent Scotland (or one based upon the “devo-plus” or “devo-max” variants of increased subsidiarity within the existing UK) tackle public service reform and what might that mean?

The pressures for such reform will be familiar to most readers. They include the changing demography of Scotland and the ageing of its population, the need to reform public services to ensure that they are more user-led and also more effective in achieving meaningful social and economic impacts, and the need to provide innovative public services that deliver an efficient use of public money in a time of economic recession – and beyond.

These issues were well rehearsed by the Christie Commission set up by the Scottish Government before the last election and which reported after it on the future of public services in Scotland. In response, the Scottish Government has outlined four priorities in shaping this future: a shift to preventative rather than reactive public services; greater local integration of public services; investment in the public service workforce and a commitment to using information communication technology and digital technology to enhance the effectiveness and transparency of public services. Could an independent Scotland deliver these priorities?

It can be argued that independence or increased devolution is irrelevant to such reforms. There is already substantial devolution of policymaking in many areas of public services, after all. Will independence really have any genuine impact upon how these services affect local people and their communities? I think that there are six, often linked, reasons to suggest that not only can independence have an impact but also that it is vital to genuine and sustainable public services reform in Scotland.

First, there is the enduring disconnect between public policymaking that happens (mostly) in Scotland, and the financing of public services – which is still largely led by funding regimes from the UK government. Both supporters and critics of independence in Scotland have argued that this disconnect fragments the implementation process and weakens the accountability of public services by removing the link between public service provision and taxation. On both grounds, therefore, the integrated local decision-making and financial responsibility that independence would bring can only enhance effective public services in Scotland.

Second, both service and economic pressures are encouraging the exploration of public service integration initiatives. The lack of integration of the care system for older people and people with disabilities across the NHS and social services, for example, has been acknowledged as having had a damaging effect on the quality of life of many vulnerable adults – their essential services can become easily disorganised, as the Scottish Government has acknowledged in its response to Christie. Equally, the economic recession makes it important to consider what economies of scale can be gained for public services by integration – freeing up resources for other essential services. Such integration requires both local decision-making and budgets and is undermined by the present articulated arrangements within the UK. An independent Scotland would have greater capacity to drive forward this integration by local alignment of social and healthcare budgets.

Third, there is a global consensus that both the changing nature of social and economic needs and the economic recession require innovative responses; more of the same is simply not an option. One thing we know from the extensive research on innovation in services delivery (in the public and private sectors) is that it is driven by local clusters of innovative service firms and by a close relationship between these and their service users. This vital localism is hampered by governance arrangements that separate funding decisions in Westminster from local knowledge and local patterns of service delivery in Scotland. Bringing decision-making and the financing of public services innovation together in an independent Scotland would follow this best practice.

Fourth, the voluntary sector in Scotland is both vibrant and essential to the delivery of high-quality public services, as research we have recently conducted for the Scottish Government has highlighted. Yet local responsiveness and accountability are weakened when key elements of the work of the voluntary sector (such as around employment services) are funded as part of huge UK-wide programmes that do not take account of local needs or capabilities. An independent, or more highly devolved, Scotland would be able to maximise the contribution of this sector to drive forward reform of effective public services – and without the empty rhetoric of the “Big Society” being used to mask public service cuts and reductions.

Fifth, this same research has also identified a culture of public services delivery in Scotland that is based distinctively upon principles of collaboration – across the public, private and voluntary sectors and with local communities. These partnerships may often work imperfectly, or sporadically, but they are based upon principles of social justice and cohesion that can seem at odds with the more competitive models of the UK government. Good practice in the business sector has increasingly emphasised the importance of collaboration to sustainable performance – and this is an advantage Scottish public services would do well to protect and enhance.

Finally, is the fundamental premise that services are most effective when planned and produced together with the individuals and communities that use them. Research over three decades and more into service delivery (in the private and public sectors) has demonstrated that these users and communities are the most successful source of service innovation and growth. This has also been a consistent refrain of both private and public service leaders. An independent Scotland would be able to privilege Scottish citizens and communities in designing their services and commit the finances necessary to make these a reality. Any such reforms that bring funding, accountability and local public service planning and delivery together at the local level can only help to improve their effectiveness.

These reasons add up to a significant argument that the public service reforms that Christie has envisioned can only be properly realised within an independent Scotland. This is not the same as saying that it is an easy solution of course. Critical issues would still remain, not least the imperative of raising public finance in an independent or truly devolved Scotland. Would Scots be prepared to countenance Scandinavian levels of taxation, for example, in return for more effective public services, or could/should whatever revenue accrues to Scotland from North Sea oil be used to drive forward public services reform? What is certain is that it is impossible to ask such questions without the mandate for local reform of public services that independence would offer.

My intention here has not been to argue in favour of either full independence or one of the devo-max/devo-plus variants. Rather, it has been to argue that the quality of public services in Scotland can only be enhanced by a genuinely Scottish system that clearly links funding and service delivery together, improving accountability, policy implementation and local decision-making.

In the wake of last year’s Scottish elections, one senior Westminster politician observed that the Scottish people had “only” voted for the SNP because it was an efficient government (presumably instead of any misguided support for independence). It would be ironic, therefore, if it were the case in 2014 that these same people voted for some version of independence “only” because it would provide more efficient and effective public services in Scotland. This topic must be at the heart of our debates over the next two years.

• Stephen Osborne is director of the Centre for Public Services Research at the University of Edinburgh

• have your say: Join the debate at scotsman.com/opinion




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