Scotland needs to base reforms on needs, says Deloitte

20 Mar 17

Scottish local government reformers need to stop being fixated with numbers of councils and concentrate instead on delivering services more efficiently, according to a report from Deloitte.

“It is clear that change is required,” the report says, “However, the debate should not be focused solely on the number and structure of public bodies. A review of services should start with the needs of communities and build upwards, ensuring citizens are engaged with, not simply provided for.”

Angela Mitchell, a Deloitte partner in Glasgow who leads on local public services, told PF that councils needed to be less risk averse in trying out new forms of service delivery: “If everything is a success first time, then we are not trying hard enough,” she said.

Mitchell said the public audit regime, the media, local politicians and council chief executives needed to adopt a longer-term view of strategic change, risk and financial planning.

There was less of an outcry in the private sector when things failed to work well at the first attempt, she said.

Scotland’s 32 unitary councils pre-date devolution, and there is broad agreement that their boundaries are not well fitted to today’s circumstances.

Some critics have argued for fewer councils and others for a more Scandinavian model of community-level bodies.

Politicians on all sides are reluctant to put Scotland once again through the disruptive reorganisation that delivered the present structure in the 1990s.

However, legislation is promised in the current parliament to review the role of local government, and there is speculation that this could mean redrawing the council map.

This had prompted Deloitte to issue this report to chief executives and other senior municipal officials, Mitchell said.

The report says: “Rather than starting with discussions over the number and size of authorities required across Scotland (as the Welsh Assembly’s reform programme did), we suggest beginning by reviewing the nature of services required within local communities.

“Sharing systems and infrastructure across local organisations will reduce costs, create resilience and strengthen the collaboration required to deliver local outcome improvement plans,” it adds.

“This should be the starting point for responding to changes in the local government landscape and should, ideally, be embedded as a continuous activity to ensure services remain relevant.”

It urges councils to continue the direction “A comprehensive understanding of community needs is required and, to maximise the impact of services, this should be jointly supported by all local bodies delivering services within that community,” it says.

The report echoes the 2011 Christie report on public service delivery, notably in urging greater collaboration and a shift to preventive remedies.

It suggests technologies such as digitisation and better data sharing can be powerful enablers of earlier intervention.

“It is important that digital is not considered the domain of the IT department, but a way of transforming service delivery, infrastructure, culture and workforces to improve services,” it says.

The report also puts an emphasis on workforce development, urging councils to motivate staff by linking their work more directly to citizen outcomes, building multidisciplinary teams and not focusing excessively on structure.

It warns that the effects of austerity on morale could limit councils’ ability to reform service provision. “Mistakes will be made along the way but that is to be expected,” it admits.

“Organisations should be prepared to fail fast and learn from the experience.”

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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