Public service reform strays off course

Budget cuts of �6bn will have an impact on the future of initiatives such as free school meals for children in primary 1-3. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Budget cuts of �6bn will have an impact on the future of initiatives such as free school meals for children in primary 1-3. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Three years on, have the Christie Commission’s recommendations for public sector change been delivered , asks Dave Watson

On 29 June, 2011, the Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services delivered its landmark report. It was a roadmap for reform and was accepted by the Scottish Government and most stakeholders. Three years on, we need to check that we haven’t lost our way.

Last year, the Scottish Parliament’s local government committee highlighted serious concerns about the pace and direction of reform.

It said: “The best examples of public service reform arise when local communities and front-line staff are fully engaged in the process of designing and procuring services. We are sceptical of the value of top-down or centrally driven changes of services.”

That bottom-up vision was an essential element of the Christie Commission report.

The creation of Police Scotland is a good example of how centralisation can mean losing that vital community engagement.

The council tax freeze and ring fencing is turning local authorities into the administrative arm of central government rather than the innovative local leader that Christie envisaged. Colleges have been regionalised away from local communities.

Health and care integration was used by Christie to make the case for local integration. The new framework does allow a degree of local choice, although ministers retain extensive powers to direct and intervene. Changes to criminal justice social work follow a similar model, but at least another centralising quango option was rejected. Community planning reforms do offer the opportunity to develop local solutions, but with so many key services delivered by national quangos, local engagement is limited.

Another key Christie theme was preventative spending. When money has been available, the Scottish Government has prioritised long-term gains such as early years’ provision and free school meals for P1-3.

However, shifting finance to preventative spending is beyond challenging when £6 billion is being slashed from the Scottish budget and public bodies are putting sticking plasters on collapsing services.

The inequality that Christie highlighted is still with us, undermining every policy initiative.

From a workforce perspective, the Christie recommendations still seem some way off. On the plus side, we see fewer consultants with their Blue Peter-style “here’s one we prepared earlier” approach.

However, bottom-up design of services is far from common. Government legislation all too often largely ignores the workforce component, giving the impression that services are delivered by robots.

There is no workforce strategy that creates a framework to stop everyone reinventing the wheel in every service change. The Christie “one public service worker” concept is nowhere to be seen.

It has been argued that behaviours and risk aversion are barriers to change. But public service workers see this more as a “blame culture” problem. If you want people to be innovative and take risks, you have to accept that they won’t all work out and allow space for failure. Exhortations to adopt a “can-do” approach sound a little thin when 50,000 public sector jobs have been cut and many more are to go.

The public sector workforce is all too often having to cut corners and drop the very preventative work Christie rightly put so much value on. Staff surveys show clearly that workers have huge concerns over the standard of service they are delivering, with few feeling fully engaged.

There has been a big loss in trust and respect in senior managers, which probably reflects the distance of many now from service delivery, due to de-layering in management structures. Calls for “strong leadership” are simply rhetoric and encourage the opposite of the Christie model of staff and user engagement in service design.

While change is difficult in the current environment, it isn’t impossible. There are good examples of services that are trying to follow the Christie model. Scotland is small enough to develop a workforce strategy that provides a framework for reform, creating the space for local innovation and design.

We should be using staff governance to put engagement and good work at its core – empowering staff and service users, utilising the public service ethos that Christie championed.

Three years on from his report, Campbell Christie would have hoped for more.

However, he was a pragmatist who understood how difficult change would be in a period dominated by the austerity economics he detested.

In the foreword to his report, he said that public services “are central to achieving the fair and just society to which we aspire”. Public services are delivered by people and that’s where we should refocus our efforts.

• Dave Watson is the head of bargaining and campaigns at UNISON Scotland and was an expert adviser to the Christie Commission


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