Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

What is the Future of Scottish Public Sector?

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Following an event on the future of local governance in Scotland, Kim Fellows, James Mitchell and Hannah Muirhead summarise some of the ideas that emerged from the discussion

The future of local governance in Scotland was discussed at a Chatham House-rules event focused on local government and covering everything from the centralisation of Scottish politics, to the language used to describe local government and recruitment issues in councils.

While concluding that we might not see radical change to local government in the next few years, and the way forward for local government is not completely clear, the conversation was productive, with key questions being asked, paving the way for further discussions involving a wide range of interests.

Starting the conversation

We kicked off with some fundamental questions: Have we lost sight of why we have local government? What is now the point of local government? Can we bring local government back to its core purpose: to serve communities?

We identified that within local governance there is a tendency to identify problems, and then produce structural or mechanical solutions, ignoring behavioural solutions that might be better suited for achieving change. And where innovation does happen and produce results, good practice doesn’t always travel well – there’s no one size fits all solution for many issues, and we should not be striving to find one at the expense of locally-tailored policy that works.

Central government seems to have decided that local government is a problem that needs solving, and on top of this there is a lack of understanding how local government actually works. This knowledge gap is particularly important during these complex times, when there is less funding available and changing demographics increase the demands on local government.

Central government has a centralising tendency because it wants everything it can “see” to be right and work well, feeling responsible for what happens on the fringes. While this tendency may result in positive outcomes, these are areas best left to councils to decide what needs to be done. But getting central government to let go is likely to be challenging.

There also has been a change in our assumptions about the provision of services. We now assume a measure of uniformity in service provision within and across the four countries of the UK. Is there a delusion that you can create – for example – a health service that looks the same across very different areas? And do we actually need a health service to look the same across very different areas?

Some services lend themselves better to local choice than others – education, for example, might be more appropriate as a centrally led service than health. Local government is at its best and most useful in domains where we think that local choice and local differences are not just to be expected, but applauded: for example housing, recreation, leisure and public spaces.

Devolving power to communities, and to councils, should be our aim, while at the same time understanding that communities are not always best placed to take difficult decisions for example – no community will vote to close its schools, even if there is an oversupply of schools in the local area.

Blowing our own trumpets

Successive acts of legislation have tied local government’s hands – does this risk making it less relevant? Fewer candidates are standing – leading to more uncontested wards. Turnout at the last local elections was higher than at any time since the 1970s, but whether this is due to increased engagement with national Scottish politics and efforts to register voters than a renewed interest in local government, is unclear.

We are in no doubt that there is good work and innovation going on and we need to start telling this story of success. We need people to recognise the range of services delivered by local government: the minute you step outside your house and onto a pavement, you’re receiving a service from your council. When you go out to dinner and don’t get food poisoning, that’s local government too. Local government everywhere, but invisible. How do we shine a light on it?

And there is a willingness to care about public services – people feel attached to the police, fire services, the NHS. Ensuring that people care about local government in the same way is a job for individual local authorities and for COSLA.

What Next?

Local government is an important and integral part of our public services and Scotland needs an honest conversation about the future of local government. We need to examine the funding formula, and ask what fairer funding looks like for the whole of Scotland. We need to support and develop the leaders of the future within local government and attract the brightest and best into the sector.

We could look to the European Charter for Local Self Government for ideas and other experiences close to home and further a field. We need to better empower and support people to want to take control over decision making at a local level.

We need to break the attachment to our current ways of doing things; get rid of the feeling that you can’t change things so there’s no point trying. Stretching the rules doesn’t have to lead to anarchy. Don’t just accept what the rules say if the rules don’t work – make a case for why things should be done differently.

We need to avoid significant structural change if at all possible – structural change is what you do when you don’t know what to do. We need to create space for the sharing of ideas and innovation, encourage local government to ‘modestly boast’ about what it does – and share their failures as well as their successes.

We have to accept that we are human and people will get it wrong. We have to tackle the culture of fear – fear of failure. We need to reframe the relationship between public bodies and the people.

This has to be more than just an interesting conversation. The Academy of Government and LGiU Scotland have shared the initial ideas in this blog. Beyond that, how can we encourage culture change, local engagement and innovation? Your comments are welcome.