Road to an enlightened version of people power

Road to an enlightened version of people power

Ruth Wishart, The Herald
29.06.11

 

Sitting on a commission is about finding how little you know in the company of the better informed.

 

It’s emphatically not about strolling around in the long grass then offering tentative answers to folks who forgot why they’d asked the questions in the first place.

 

At least not in the case of the Christie Commission of which I was a member and which had barely six months to take evidence and produce this morning’s report on the future of Scotland’s public services. Somewhat akin to being asked to do an Olympic class sprint through Glastonbury-style mud.

 

The broad consensus which emerged from the outpouring of written and verbal evidence came from the increasing realisation that we didn’t need to make a drama out of an impending crisis. The raw numbers were dramatic enough. Downright scary, even. Not least that we’re looking at 15 or 16 lean years before budgets get back to 2010 levels. Plus a demography which can only add to the strain. Not to mention the collateral damage from nationwide recession.

 

Some of the statistics hit you like a thump in the solar plexus. That 40% of our public expenditure on services is down to the fact we have always set our faces against the early intervention which could have tackled poverty, crime levels and low aspiration. In the jargon; “failure demand”. That, chillingly, half our prison population has been in care despite representing 1% of the population. That the income gap between poor and rich, and the gap in their life expectancy, has worsened since devolution. Truly shocking. Truly shaming.

 

Given the arithmetic, Scotland’s public services will change out of recognition in any event; the challenge is to manage that change with maximum ingenuity and minimum pain. The challenge is to harness all available human resources, as the fiscal variety are squeezed.

 

Even in a more equable world, radical reform of our public services was long overdue. Despite all the mouth music about co-operation and sharing services, the evidence spoke volumes about a still persistent silo mentality, a ludicrous level of duplication in areas like risk assessment, a wilful refusal to offer transparency around commissioning and procurement, and a too common mindset that the service producers knew best. A world where event the best intentioned and most committed front line staff are swimming in a sea of bureaucracy.

 

Addressing overlapping service delivery and dismantling demarcation lines will require as much of a cultural revolution as a logistical one. Within the commission there were different views on whether reforming the number of structures might be a costly distraction rather than the rationalisation of a cluttered landscape.

 

But no hesitation in recognising that service integration was an urgent priority, and a new concordat which made local authority funds contingent on collaboration and integration would concentrate minds quite sharply. Add in, across all providers, a new set of common powers and duties geared to outcomes not process, while stripping out antiquated, counter-productive regulations, and you begin to see the building blocks of the more seamless garment our services have to become.

 

That’s one key recommendation, as is devolving employment issues given the tensions between the policy approaches of Whitehall and Holyrood. At the core of the messages is an enlightened form of people power. Involving individuals and communities as a matter of right in the design and delivery of public services rather than jamming them into systems ordered for convenience. Tapping into the under-utilised skills and energy of communities is empowering in itself, and a necessary resource to fill the gaps appearing in over-stretched services. What also came through loud and clear was the success of bottom up movements like community development trusts; not the maligned big society, but an enlightened, interdependent, innovative and compassionate one.

 

In six months, the Christie Commission could only fashion a possible road map. Now it needs a Government driver with the belief that prevention is the only long-term cure and the guts to ditch short-term temporary fixes in favour of it.