Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Christie Commission: Look out for strong values and long term innovation. Not budget quick fixes.

Though Campbell Christie, ex-STUC General Secretary, is a friend and a former colleague, I have no advanced notice of the contents of his report which will be launched on Thursday this week.  It would seem that through one source or another both the Holyrood magazine and the Glasgow Herald have!

I have feared for a while that the media and many commentators may be underwhelmed by the recommendations.  Almost since its inception, there has been a growing implication, hardly discouraged by the Scottish Government, that Christie's findings will in some way provide guidance on how the Cabinet Secretary for Finance should approach his diminishing budget and public spending crisis in the next two or three years. That was not Christie's brief, nor could it ever have been.

Indeed what is clear, and consistent with the line of inquiry adopted by the Commission when STUC met with it, is that its impressively qualified members have taken seriously their actual brief - to provide a road map for reform, through being long term and radical in their outlook.

This will be no ‘privateers charter’. Those who would change the nature of public service provision to the marketised or 'enabling state' model will be disappointed.  All indications are that the Commission will recognise the state as the key provider of public services, albeit buttressed by an innovative voluntary sector.  If Christie’s plans reach fruition cross agency working between PSOs and a bottom up approach to service delivery involving both users and public service workers will be the key.

Inevitably, at the same time as localism is championed, we will see recommendations for more shared services - the amalgamation of particular functions between local authorities or between different public service providers.

A word of warning is required here.  Shared services can work … sometimes.  But they are no panacea, often the imagined savings are delayed or do not appear at all, and there is a real risk that by ghettoising particular parts of public service delivery from others, work is shunted around, but less systematic and non 'problem-solving' approaches proliferate.

Headline news is that  the Commission will demand a major shift towards early intervention and that social and economic justice will be driven more deeply into the ethos and, importantly, into the evaluated outcomes for public service organisations.  To achieve this we need the right type of regulatory regime - clear and well-defined but not prone to increasing transaction cost.  I also predict that the Commission will recognise that farfrom flirting with the nonsense touted by the right wing that public services are a ‘drag on the economy’.  The real value of the sector to growth will be heralded.

Above all, I hope and trust Christie has some positive things to say about public service workers.  It is no exaggeration to say that, along with public service users, our workers are the key to effective service redesign.  They know what works and what does not and, more importantly they very often know why.  But a worker who is fearful for their job, undervalued and undertrained and whose pay and pensions are under attack is less likely to be able to help us think our way into improvement.

Value the worker and much which is positive will follow.

Grahame Smith
Scottish Trades Union Congress

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