Public service reform must put outcomes before self interest

Public service reform must put outcomes before self interest
Third Force News

THE need for sustainable, high-quality public services opens up new opportunities and calls for new ways of working, positively acknowledged in these pages by a range of contributors.


We should be ambitious for public services – incremental improvements are no longer sufficient – and we should never lose focus that this is about improving outcomes for people.


The Christie Commission on the Future of Public Service Delivery endorsed our approach towards outcomes and the centrality of community planning at the local level. However, the Commission also delivered a pointed message on the need to accelerate the pace of change. Placing people at the centre of all that we do, we are building our reform agenda around four pillars: closer integration and partnership, improved performance, workforce development and a decisive shift towards prevention.


In times of economic uncertainty and an extremely tight public spending climate, our commitment to this final pillar – prevention – is both radical and timely. Action and spending that focuses on preventing problems and that eases future demand on services by intervening early is the right thing to do. Right because this is how we can improve lives for the long term and tackle the inequalities that hold Scotland’s people and communities back. And right because it will reduce the cost of public services and deliver value for money. This is a long term and ambitious goal, but over the next three years, half a billion pounds will be put towards preventative spending. What is unique to this package of funding is that it must be delivered in a partnership – no element of that preventative spend will be delivered in isolation.


This is a prime opportunity for local government and the third sector to strengthen partnerships. Success will depend on public services which draw in the best expertise and resources across communities to design or deliver approaches that work for people locally.


A further element in delivering better outcomes for people is communication and solid relationships at community planning level. Community planning stands or falls on whether it delivers better outcomes and it must keep up with the pace of financial pressures, changing demography and the growing social needs we face. We recognise that effective community planning does need greater integration and clearer accountability for partners. That’s why I am leading a review of community planning with Cosla. We will work with local government and other community planning partners, including the third sector, to implement the recommendations of that review as soon as possible after the local elections in May.


A challenge I would like to share with the third sector is to show leadership and collaborate more. My experience suggests many organisations are competing with each other to position themselves as the lead partner in their field. The third sector’s great specialisation and leadership would be better channelled delivering improved outcomes in our communities.


I have heard some in the sector say that it is too difficult to build relationships with 32 councils as opposed to one government. I believe the reverse – dialogue can only be of benefit with both national and local government. But I am clear that the third sector should have a clear voice – one interface – in each Community Planning Partnership, giving a level of consistency and helping to channel messages and resources. The opportunities are there for the third sector because of its ability to respond to situations and address need.


We must start by asking what people need, and who is best placed to help meet these needs. To understand this we must understand the needs and aspirations of the communities we serve and work with them to achieve better outcomes. We must also look at ways to help more people have more of a chance to do things for themselves. These are aims we will be working towards with our forthcoming Community Empowerment and Renewal Bill.


Ensuring services are consistently well designed and delivered by the right people to the right people – that is what drives me and what drives the government. We will always put outcomes before self interest. There must not be any presumption against change and I would strongly argue that it should be those best placed to provide a service who should be providing it as opposed to any prejudiced view about where it should rest. Sometimes that will be the third sector or in-house council provision and there are other examples where the private sector will make a contribution in growth areas rather than transfers. Communities and community organisations also play an important role in helping improve outcomes for people in their areas. There is always room for innovation and new approaches to continue to provide the services we currently provide.


Local government has a leadership role that is all the more important right now. We have ruled out across-the-board structural change of local government. We don’t want to put energy and time and focus on boundaries when the urgent task is to bring down artificial boundaries within the public sector to deliver improved performance. Leadership has to be more radical than ever before to make sure that there is a full integration of effort.


There is clear evidence that people are working together, jointly understanding people’s needs, and coming up with innovative packages covering the country, moving away from ‘projectitis’. We need to mainstream good practice and integration and pull down the barriers and the prejudices that seem to exist. We need to move beyond an ill-informed perception that the third sector thinks one thing and the state another. In truth these sectors are not a challenge to each other and at their best powerfully complement one another through a shared ethos of public service.


These challenges and opportunities come at a time of debate around Scotland’s constitutional future. The third sector has an important voice in this debate and we want to have a discussion in a meaningful way, in every step of the process towards the referendum. My aspiration for independence is not about powers for the sake of it but about how we can change Scotland for the better, and we can only do this by having a full debate with all of Scotland. I’d encourage you to take part.