A focus on working together will make the tough decisions easier for councils, delegates are told
“In the long run, we are all dead”; an interesting but fitting choice of quote from First Minister Alex Salmond as he opened this year’s Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) annual conference in St Andrews a fortnight ago.
The theme of the First Minister’s speech centred on the quote from economist John Maynard Keynes to illustrate his belief that 2010 is the key year in which action needs to be sustained in order to keep the economy moving. “Unless you can manage and command the short term, then your options in the long term will be very restricted indeed,” he told the conference.
While much of the speech focused on Salmond’s plea to the UK Government to carry forward another economic stimulus plan this year, the choice of the Keynes quote is also relevant to councils because it seems likely that 2010 will be their make-or-break year. Decisions made over the next few months about the ideas and changes councils will take forward will help to determine the future of public service delivery in Scotland.
Local government in Scotland is on the brink of a huge programme of change, and what delegates will be discussing at next year’s COLSA conference is anyone’s guess.
With an outlook this bleak it would be fair to expect the mood of the conference to be downbeat, but there was an air of some confidence in Scotland’s ability to handle the challenges. It may have been something to do with the rather extravagant five-star surroundings of the Fairmont St Andrews hotel – of which Salmond joked that next year “the way things are going it will be sandwiches on the West Sands”- but the panic that councillors and officials could reasonably be expected to be succumbing to was largely absent.
“The trick for us will be do we allow ourselves to manage the circumstances or do we allow the circumstances to manage us?,” COSLA President Pat Watters asked delegates in his opening address. “I would argue that as always, local government should be managing those circumstances. We should take control of those circumstances and use those circumstances to try and protect the services that are so vital to our communities,” he continued.
Watters was unrelenting in his belief that councils can and will handle the challenging circumstances ahead, largely putting this down to the strong relationship between local and national government.
“We’ve got a good start – both at political and at officer level, we’re working with government and looking at how we manage some of the major areas, how we prepare for reduction in resources, we’ve sensibly and realistically estimated what the reduction would be and what the costs of the current policies are and work is beginning with our partners to try and close that gap. Only by having these discussions about the changes should we reach any conclusion about how we want to change things,” he said.
Highlighting his belief that the discussions on change will take time, Watters added: “You don’t answer the question before you fully understand what the question is.” And as the Finance Secretary pointed out during his speech on the final day of the conference, the questions are not fully understood by anyone in the public sector at this point.
He said: “Your organisations and my organisation are essentially now being led by people who have never experienced a period of significant public expenditure constraint at any stage in their senior careers within our organisations. I think it opens up first of all, for all of us elected members and all of our senior officials within local authorities and senior officials within government, an enormous challenge of leadership to work out the best course to navigate through the challenges we will experience in the period to come.” Swinney was also eager to stress his strong belief that the establishment of the Concordat will help local authorities a great deal in the coming years, particularly because of the way it had changed relationships.
“Ensuring that the spirit and the manner and the style envisioned in the Concordat, the process that’s involved there to ensure that we are actually working together on shared outcomes to me, is a major element of how we’ll address the financial challenge,” he said, adding that in his opinion, a great deal had been achieved in a short space of time.
“In the course of the last three years – I don’t think this journey is complete but I think we’re making a lot of progress towards achieving this and completing this journey – we have broken down a whole range of barriers, false barriers within the public sector in Scotland – false distinctions that have been used actually to interrupt service delivery rather than to aid the development of service delivery within our country.
“And what we’ve been able to create through the much more effective community planning partnerships (CPPs) that we have focused on formulating and then delivering SOAs has been a focus on the questions that actually matter to the citizens of our country about the public services that we are delivering.” He added that an intensification of partnership working through CPPs would be a vital way of meeting the challenges that lie ahead, using them as a means of ensuring that resources are deployed in an “integrated, cohesive, coordinated and crucially a collaborative fashion at local level”. Swinney also actively encouraged councils to involve the third sector “very closely and very immediately in the formulation of plans at local level”, saying he felt that as “a society we are richer for that type of interaction of cooperation.” A need for an increased involvement of other groups was also reflected in the conference agenda, which for the first time contained a slot for ‘Alternative Voices’.
During this session, delegates heard a plea to involve service users in service reform from James Elder-Woodward, convener of the Independent Living in Scotland Project.
Formerly a social worker at Glasgow City Council, Elder-Woodward has experience of providing, planning and researching local authority services and as he has cerebral palsy, he is also a service user.
In an extremely thought-provoking speech, Elder-Woodward told delegates that disabled people were scared of what the financial cuts would mean for them. He said that at a recent meeting, one disabled woman had said: “Even in the good times they didn’t do much for us.
Now what’s it going to be like?” Elder-Woodward called on councils to use a co-production model of working together with disabled people – a method which relies on the knowledge of service users to shape policy formation and resource utilisation. He gave the example of a local authority that had listened to and worked with users of an adult training centre, explaining: “For years people with learning difficulties had been telling staff they wanted a job.
So rather than maintain the centres, the authority decided to maintain the people in supported employment places.
“Now, that authority supports over 130 people who earn an average of £125 a week more than they did when they attended the centre.” Voicing concern about the continuation of the free personal care policy, Elder- Woodward said: “For free provision for the few often means greater cost to the many; especially for those who also use the same service.” While there was little talk of what policies should be reviewed during the rest of the conference, Watters was certainly keen for delegates to see the positives that the financial challenge may offer and said that previous experience had shown Scottish local government was up to the challenge.
“I see some elements of what we’re all facing here as an opportunity,” he said.
“I believe that much like the situation we faced at local government reorganisation [in 1996] when 250,000 staff, all the services that we deliver changed from 67 authorities on a Thursday night to 32 authorities on the Friday morning, and to this day some of our communities don’t know that change happened – we managed things extremely well. And I believe that the opportunity when you look at what happens, about the democratic accountability of both government and local government, we can go on to manage the problems we’re facing in a much, much better way.
“I believe that the opportunity to look at the whole of the public sector and how we do things is an opportunity to bring that democratic accountability into places where it’s not there presently. We need to look at how we manage our business, take that business forward and how we then go forward.” A key request Watters made in his speech was for the number of priorities passed down to local government to be reduced.
“We have consistently requested to government that we have fewer priorities and that we stick to those priorities. Now it becomes not just a wish but an absolute necessity during the current climate.” But his message to delegates was crystal-clear.
“Whatever comes, we will manage it on behalf of communities,” he said.