How do we bring change to our public sector?
The Scotsman, June 25th 2011
One of the growth areas in the last few years in Scottish public life has been the establishment of various Commissions drawing together ‘expert’ opinion. We have had a broadcasting commission, Calman on the powers of the Scottish Parliament, and before that one on tuition fees.
Next week sees the publication of the Campbell Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services. Given the plethora of Commissions it is worth noting that the Scottish Government does not have a central resource of how to do these things: how to set them up, engage, be imaginative, and ask the right questions.
The Christie Commission addresses one of the key issues of public life: the challenge to public services in an increasingly pressurised environment squeezed between public spending cuts, demographics and rising public expectations.
For all its limitations: too filled and shaped by vested interests, too controlled by civil servants, too little expertise and too little idea on how to engage and encourage the popular imagination, it does provide a useful start to a long overdue debate.
It looks set to dismiss easy options and headline style answers. It will hopefully throw out simplistic and technical solutions such as that thinking structural change and prioritising centralisation and amalgamation is the main way to bring about savings and reform.
We have to find ways of assessing how effectively our public services are in expressing the values they claim they promote, and what contribution they offer to making Scotland a more humane, civilised, fair society.
Public services aren’t aided by being fragmented, divided and developed into a maze of complex structures. Witness the labyrinth mess of even the amended English NHS reforms.
We need clear decision making, structures which aid accountability, transparency and leadership, and encourage new ways of leading, thinking and acting. We need to ask who makes decisions and why, in what ways our services are responsive and public facing, and how is accountability and governance expressed.
In this the more prevalent English Blairite/Cameron marketising approach to public services points to competition and choice driving innovation and efficiency. But at the price of equity and clear lines of accountability as management guru Gerry Robinson has repeatedly pointed out.
The traditional conservative sentiment of large parts of Scotland’s public sector has displayed the championing of equity over the narrow pursuit of efficiency. This has had the drawback of being more institutionally captured, inwardly focused, and insular. It has been more adept for good and bad at being an expression of professionalist ethos.
Both of these approaches have limitations. The marketisation approach ends in systematic outsourcing, complex lines of accountability making where the buck stops unclear, and the grotesque inefficiencies of PFI, with UK hospital contracts found in a recent survey to have an average 66.7% profit margin versus Sainsbury’s normal 3% margin. This has led to a wonderful parallel world of lucrative PFI/PPP wealth, deals and pseudo-entrepreneurs: all at our expense!
The institutional, professional model has its own problems, of empire building, turf wars and the inherent laws of bureaucracy. Scotland has to chart a road between these two approaches: the simplicities of the new radicals with their ‘private is good’ and the narrow horizons of the traditional vested interests.
To do this we have to ask what behaviours do people need to nurture and support in public services. First, in relation to workers in the public services, and second, in terms of the general public and society.
There is the wider issue of vision, national mission and purpose in all this. What kind of Scottish society do we aspire to live in? What choices and trade-offs are we prepared to make to get there? How can we stop ourselves spreading our resources thinly and inadequately?
The public sector has to be about supporting resilience, capacity building and the issue of assets. This entails a culture and practice which isn’t passive, but instead about addressing the causes of problems, aiding opportunities and tackling inequalities, and making a fundamental difference.
Different types of leadership can change public attitudes and behaviour and because of that society. Many years ago Glasgow City Council’s ‘Glasgow Miles Better’ pioneering city promotion changed how Glasgow was seen by its citizens and tourists. This was an adaptive, visionary leadership, making people feel that they were a part of something bigger and better, a story of their city and change which they felt part of and saw themselves as owning.
To often we see a very different, cautious technical leadership, which does not dare to be bold, motivate and reach out to people. And we also don’t want a culture filled by one type of leader: people talking the big expansive vision; instead we have to encourage a plurality of styles one of which is acknowledging the strengths of pragmatic leadership as well.
The financial challenges of the next few years are going to shape how we think of our public services along with many other aspects of public life, and force us to reflect on the consequences of our distributional choices and ‘free’ public services.
A response to this climate was provided by the Crawford Beveridge Independent Budget Review. While its number crunching was helpful, it also provided an example of part of the problem. This was a narrow, deterministic accountancy style ‘men of the world’ rationale to the challenges we face, looking at how we measure, evaluate and look clinically at every aspect of public life. This was an arid, cost benefit analysis, bereft of emotional connection, aiding the limited outputs and outcomes focused mindset, rather than values and culture.
There are two understandable approaches to the future of the public sector. One is to cling to the few things left we know we feel are certain such as the parameters of gatekeeper Scotland and try to see off what we think are the vandals gathering at the gate. The other is to become even more technocratic, systems based and talking the language and philosophy of a top down business-led, managerialised world.
Instead, Scotland’s public services need to inculcate a culture of adaptive, visionary leaders sitting alongside pragmatism. We have to review and renew the implicit social contract and covenant that exists between society and public services, and commit both to a partnership which lays out the ambitions, aspirations and values of modern Scotland.
The Christie Commission will hopefully show that issues of delivery, reform and change aren’t glib soundbites, but complex and nuanced. It has to be the start of a difficult, maturing conversation, about choices, what we want to do, are prepared to not do, and who we want to be.