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J a n ua ry 2 0 1 3
Public Services Reform: a response to the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee
1 The RSE welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the work of the Local Government and Regeneration Committee and strand 3 of its inquiry into public services reform. Whilst the inquiry has been taken in 3 strands, many of the issues being raised seem to be inextricably linked; therefore some of our comments may also relate to earlier strands of the work of the Committee. The critical starting point for all of this work from the perspective of the RSE is that any significant programme of reform of public services should be driven by an “outcomes based” approach, i.e. an approach that focuses on what services are to be delivered and what the services are designed to achieve. The questions posed in the call for evidence give no obvious reference to an outcomes based approach, nor are they a set of questions about effectiveness. Effectiveness should be the first consideration in an outcomes based approach. The implication of the remit of the inquiry is that achieving economies of scale is the prime focus. Whilst we recognise that the current pressures on public finances does require the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to examine the opportunities for more financially efficient delivery of public services, this should not be the only measure by which public services are judged – the outcomes for people, communities and businesses in Scotland all need to be foremost in considering any programme of reform. In reforming public services it is also important that full consideration is given to the demographic trends that indicate an ageing population and one with a declining number of people in the working age population. Whilst it is possible that migration within the EU may change this pattern to some degree – as the recent census indicates – it is probably too early to judge whether this has been a short-term impact of EU enlargement or will represent a more permanent change to Scotland’s population age distribution.
Taking full advantage of digital technology also provides opportunities to reform public services that both bring the services closer to the individual, whilst also potentially improving the effectiveness of the public service in terms of outcome and financial efficiency. The major barrier to fully maximising the benefits of digital to date lie in the significant percentage of people who either do not currently have access to the technology, or who do not fully use the range of services and functions that the technology offers. The RSE will shortly be launching an Inquiry into Reaping the Benefits of a Digital Scotland, which we hope will help to identify some of the barriers and propose ways to address them. It is essential that the “digital divide” that the RSE seeks to study as part of its Inquiry is adequately addressed, particularly given the UK Government’s “digital by default” approach. Whilst the RSE recognises some of the drivers in seeking to share service provision, where this involves three or more organisations it can be problematic. In many cases it can be advanced more easily where the organisations have different remits but within the same geographic boundary, such as a health board with a local authority, rather than when organisations have the same remit but different boundaries, such as a group of local authorities. In the latter situation there can often be conflict if individual organisations are competing for prioritisation in the output of the shared service. It is possible to achieve partnerships between organisations with parallel responsibilities, but only if a buy-in to shared outcomes has been worked upon in advance, such as in the Clyde Valley initiative. Shared trust in the service outcomes is vital in such shared services. As well as having a shared sense of outcome, it is also important that accurate and comparable supplies of data are available. From the work on the Clyde Valley study, it is evident that these can be variable to a significant degree.
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10 It is also important to recognise that even with the establishment of a joint aim that the implementation of shared services requires considerable effort as logistical and political challenges can emerge during this process.
How are opportunities for sharing services being identified?
14 Many of the examples cited in regard to this are relatively trivial and amount to mere ‘drops in the ocean’ when it comes to cost savings. Larger scale savings are not evident. Transcending and cooperating across Local Authority boundaries is challenging and requires a buy-in to the process at political and senior officer level. This was a key component of the Clyde Valley partnership cited in paragraph 9. 15 Does Scotland need 32 Local Authorities? It is often argued that if Scotland had fewer, larger Local Authorities it would be easier to share services and functions across Local Authority boundaries. But there is a problem around how Local Authority boundaries would be determined if they were to be changed. For example, if Local Authority boundaries were determined by scale, with a minimum size to be encompassed within each boundary, we would face a difficulty with regard to certain ‘unmoveable boundaries’, especially amongst distinct island communities who do not want to be subsumed within a larger geographical region. 16 There are a considerable number of factors that arise from boundary changes, and many of the existing boundaries are maintained for all sorts of historical reasons. However, it is now approaching 20 years since the establishment of the current map of local government and with the drive towards greater coordination and efficiency; it may now be an appropriate time to reconsider this issue.
Addressing the Committee’s questions: What are local authorities doing or considering doing in terms of alternative delivery methods? What has worked and what hasn’t? What savings have been achieved from adopting alternative delivery methods? What support is being provided by the Government in driving change?
11 The Committee should consider what is meant by alternative delivery methods. It is a mistake to place all of the focus on shared delivery. The way in which local authorities have changed over the past 15 years has not always been fully recognised by central government with many core responsibilities now being delivered through the third sector. 12 There are examples in England of services being ‘Communitised’. One such example is of County Councils where there is an older population, and where they have been recruiting older people to provide advice and support to other older people. (Examples of this exist in Dorset & Wiltshire). It is perhaps more likely that older people will take advice and support from those of a similar age and with similar experiences than from social workers who are much younger than they are. 13 A further example is available in some London Boroughs around transporting children with additional support needs. North Ayrshire Council provides a similar example. Here the Council has been working with groups of parents of children with additional support needs, encouraging and enabling them to run a rota for taking their children to and from school. This seems to make more sense than having specially equipped buses which are only used twice a day, especially since the parents of these children often have suitably equipped vehicles already. These examples comprise a blend of voluntary contributions (of time and resources) as well as differently salaried staff who can be recompensed for their time in various ways.
How are the tensions between potential savings and potential job losses being resolved?
17 A very high proportion of spend in public services arises from the cost of employing suitably qualified staff to deliver the services expected. To save significant sums of money there will have to be reduced numbers of staff. Further reductions in overall budgets and the numbers of staff will inevitably lead to tensions between employers and the trade unions on how this is managed. To date it would seem that conflict has been minimised by the approach of many public services in seeking to avoid compulsory redundancies.
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18 It is also important to recognise that in moving to shared services between public agencies there is also a requirement to train staff in the skills involved in working across organisational boundaries. 24 From a procedural point of view, there is a confidence barrier to sharing services electronically. Facebook penetration is probably far greater than computer based digital access to information. Access to the internet (Facebook, email etc.) is more likely to be done via mobile phones than via computer. The use of social media for information sharing etc. tends to raise concerns about data protection, but concerns about this are not insurmountable. Information sharing and web access via mobile phones, rather than computers, is possibly the way to go for some functions.
What legislative barriers are there to developing shared and innovative service delivery models to their full potential?
19 There is no legislative barrier; a major barrier is a fear/reluctance of causing disruption. In sharing services local elected members understandably seek to defend their own communities. Therefore, developing trust between potential partner local authorities is an essential component of achieving cross border partnerships. 20 There can also be VAT implications of shared services that can inflate costs or cancel out or reduce any anticipated savings from the shared provision. It can therefore often be better for service providers to simply provide services themselves to avoid the transaction costs associated with sharing services.
What has been learned from elsewhere, for example Nottingham Early Intervention City or Birmingham total place initiative?
25 These are strong examples but it is important to ensure that they are not simply ‘islands of excellence’. The extent of learning across boundaries is not clear. Part of what MSP’s should be empowered to do is to look at examples of good practice from other councils. However, more needs to be done to ensure that such sharing and learning across boundaries does take place between Scottish Local Authorities.
In what areas is there scope for national shared services along the lines of the shared recruitment portal for local authorities ‘myjobscotland’?
21 There is a wide variety of options that could be considered, for example standardising all planning consent forms. Is it necessary for these to be different within each Local Authority as is currently the case? There is scope for improving mobility by making forms etc. uniform across Local Authority boundaries and being able to create and store all data electronically. 22 There are many opportunities for services to become electronic, but only if there is equality of access. Glasgow for example only has around 60% of the population connected to Broadband internet. Also, making everything accessible electronically only works if there is no other alternative. Where the option still exists for people do things (e.g. renewing car tax) in person, a proportion will continue to do so rather than use an electronic system. 23 There are many Local Authority employees, e.g. gardeners, refuse collectors, who do not regularly access or use the internet as part of their jobs, and therefore don’t have regular/constant access to council updates which are published over the web. For example, council updates on school closures due to weather are often issued via the internet. This assumes that the majority of people will have access to a laptop/PC and be logging on first thing in the morning. This is by no means the case.
In what ways can innovative delivery methods and collaborative arrangements (as mentioned, for example, in the Christie Commission report) help to improve outcomes and tackle embedded social problems?
26 It could be argued that, if we are already providing good services then all that we need to do is roll these out to those who aren’t already receiving them. However, this applies only if the services we are already providing are good and meet the needs of different people in our communities 27 Local Authorities need to get the balance right between overall relationship management and personalised relationship management. It is often a difficult balance to strike but more needs to be done to personalise the delivery of services, for example there are very few examples of how personalised management is successfully scaled up to beyond 1000+ people.
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In what ways are CPPs being involved in driving the move toward new service delivery methods? What is hampering their involvement and how can it be overcome?
28 Local councils are seen as the main driving force behind Community Planning Partnerships. The CPPs are perceived as having little autonomy or impetus to drive things forwards themselves. It is essential if the CPPs are to be the agents of change, in areas such as the integration of health and social care, as is necessary, that their authority is strengthened.
Advice Papers are produced on behalf of RSE Council by an appropriately diverse working group in whose expertise and judgement the Council has confidence. Any enquiries about this submission should be addressed to the RSE’s Head of Policy Advice, Bristow Muldoon. Email: email@example.com. Responses are published on the RSE website: www.royalsoced.org.uk. Advice Paper (Royal Society of Edinburgh) ISSN 2040-2694
The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is Scotland’s National Academy. It is an independent body with a multidisciplinary fellowship of men and women of international standing which makes it uniquely placed to offer informed, independent comment on matters of national interest.
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