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01.08.13

Scottish Government turns up the heat on public sector reform

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2013

In June, the Local Government and Regeneration Committee of the Scottish Parliament published the findings of its inquiry into public service reform. James Thomson, public sector audit manager at accountants and advisers
Scott-Moncrieff, gave evidence to the committee. Here, he discusses ways in which the Scottish public sector can move forward to achieve a more efficient public service.

The report card issued by the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee on public service reform was a definite ‘could do better’, with Convener Kevin Stewart MSP saying: “During the course of our inquiry, we have seen examples of different public services working together, working with the community and working to achieve change. 

“However, these examples are rare and far outweighed by those who are resistant to making change and resistant to working together to bring real change into the hearts of communities across Scotland. There is a big gap between rhetoric and reality.” 

Reform was meant to lead to improved joint working across public sector bodies and especially with the communities and interest groups involved in the services delivered – ultimately leading to improved services for the people of Scotland. 

Whilst recognising that public services reform is an ongoing process, the Committee was “disappointed by the patchy progress and a systemic lack of appetite for change amongst stakeholders, many of whom lack the ‘can-do’ attitude needed to drive reform”. 

In essence, many organisations have been very risk averse, looking only at short-term targets and their own organisation’s self-interests, and they have been cautious about relinquishing control for actions or activities. 

As a result, there has been limited evidence of any change. John Swinney MSP, cabinet secretary for finance, employment and sustainable growth, has spoken publicly of ministerial patience wearing thin with those who claim to be delivering partnership working but have little to show for it.

So, what does the public sector need to do to improve?

To begin with, it’s worth looking at what the committee considered the best examples of reform. All these examples had three things in common. Firstly, local communities and frontline staff were fully engaged in the process of designing and procuring services; then, there was evidence of real community engagement and clear communication of vision and outputs; and finally, strong leadership is in place which is responsive and enabling. 

However, when ‘partnership working’ is mentioned within the public sector it is often referring to partnerships between public sector bodies and shared services rather than working more closely with communities. 

The onus should be on making the most effective use of all available resources, including those within communities, and establishing ways in which all interested parties can work in true partnership. One way of doing this might be to require public bodies to demonstrate why partnership working, including community engagement and shared services, is not the option that will deliver best value. 

Reform can be achieved, but it will require a culture shift.

Resources must be allocated against key strategic objectives. The limited resources available to Scotland’s public sector bodies must be used to deliver services and outputs which are for long-term benefit. 

Strong leadership is vital if the level of savings and efficiencies required are to be delivered through existing budgets. 

Services which do not deliver against strategic priorities should be stopped and the funding used to meet the agreed priorities.

There is of course a role for greater leadership and challenge from the top, but public sector organisations themselves are also responsible for ensuring that reform works. 

They should focus on outcomes and then identify the best approach and the people/groups who are best-placed to deliver this. 

It is likely that ministers will soon get tough on those who are claiming to deliver change through partnership working but who are not able to demonstrate improved outcomes. 

Reform will take time.

There is a risk that the response to the Committee’s findings will focus on short-term targets. Public service reform is about delivering sustainable long-term services for the people of Scotland. Something everyone should be interested in delivering. 

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