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‘If we’re all agreed, why is it not happening?’ – the Christie Commission 10 years on

Campbell Christie - Image credit: Mike Wilkinson

‘If we’re all agreed, why is it not happening?’ – the Christie Commission 10 years on

It’s rare for a commission, particularly one on something as arcane as public sector reform, to continue to be referred to and quoted from long after it’s over, but 10 years after it concluded, the Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services, better known as the Christie Commission, holds a special place in the heart of Scotland’s public sector and continues to be held up as the gold standard of how to do public services.

Part of that is about Dr Campbell Christie himself, the former STUC chief who died in 2011, just a few months after the commission report was published, and who before the commission had been one of the architects of bringing different groups together to campaign for a Scottish parliament.

He was, says former president of COSLA and commission member Pat Watters, “a charming person” and “a lovely man” who never had a bad word to say about anyone.

He was also an “excellent chair”, says Professor James Mitchell, chair of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, another member of the commission.

Mitchell remembers that at the first meeting of the commission they went round the room saying what they wanted to achieve, and when someone asked Christie himself the same question, he said he just wanted to make sure that they got a report at the end of it.

“And so I think that was his priority, was to make sure that something emerged that was worth having at the end of the day, and I think that was what he focused upon.”

“I think, and still think, the Christie Commission set the tone for how we think about the future of public services in a way that remains just as relevant really today,” says Jim McCormick, chief executive of the Robertson Trust, who was at the time of the report with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and has since chaired the Edinburgh Poverty Commission.

“The insights remain just as relevant, I think.”

The commission set out four key principles or pillars for improving the delivery of public services: participation – empowering individuals and communities by involving them in the design of services; partnership working to create more integrated services that improved outcomes; prioritising expenditure on prevention; and reducing duplication of services to become more efficient.

The outcomes of the commission are often attributed to Christie himself, but while they undoubtedly do chime with things he cared about, Mitchell suggests this can be “exaggerated” because actually what the commission came up with had been talked about since the 1950s and even earlier.

“The thing I would say about the commission’s report is there was nothing new in it. And there was nothing earth shatteringly important; there was no eureka moment.

“And in a sense, what the report did isn’t so much a reflection of the commission members or the chair, it’s what we were hearing from below.

“We were a filter through which good practice was gathered, articulated and condensed into a report… What the commission did was give voice to already existing thinking and views in the communities.

“And, of course, it did raise questions on why is this not happening everywhere. That’s the fundamental question.

“And what, in a sense, remains the fundamental question. If we’re all agreed this is the thing we should be doing, why is it not happening?

“I mean, probably a question I’ve asked more than any other with respect to Christie over the last 10 years. Why is it still not happening? Why is it still not happening? If we’re all agreed, why is it not happening? And I think that’s the nut we’ve yet to crack.”

Everyone likes to claim they are ‘doing Christie’, but how much has really changed?

“Not enough, is the short answer to it. Not enough,” says Watters.

There is, says Mitchell, “a lot of rhetoric” in Scotland, while “the kind of people who do that kind of stuff” are just quietly getting on with it.

“I think the fundamental point is how we close the gap between policy and practice in Scotland,” says McCormick.

“We are proud, I think, mostly legitimately, of many of our policy commitments, but I think, from government ministers to members of the public who were voting a month ago, there was a lot of frustration about the slow rate of progress in many areas.

“So I think understanding what it takes to make improvement and shift delivery is the biggest single challenge actually.”

Mitchell says he hadn’t expected the commission to drive dramatic change immediately because policy-making is “incremental, it’s slow, it’s gradual” and you would rarely get a report that really transforms something overnight.

He didn’t see it as the start of something so much as “one of the points in a very long journey that goes back decades.”

“And actually, what it contributed more than anything was it gave validation to many people who were already doing this or wanted to do this kind of thing.

“It gave them validation. It gave them something they could point to. And really, to be able to do that alone was enough.”

Mitchell says people are often surprised that, as a member of the commission, he openly admits there are problems with the recommendations, but he says critical engagement is needed and people need to acknowledge that it is difficult and the different recommendations aren’t always compatible.

He points out that community empowerment or collaborative working might reduce efficiency, for example.

Likewise, prevention doesn’t necessarily gel with empowerment, as it will most likely involve taking money away from some existing services and that is likely to be unpopular with the public.

Watters echoes this with the example of school closures or reducing the prison population: “It will take very brave politicians to say we’re not going to do that anymore. Here’s what we’re going to do. Because people are used to getting service in a particular way.

“I mean, it’s like anything, you go to close a school and all of sudden that school becomes the greatest school that’s ever been.

“It doesn’t matter what the results are, what the outcome is actually telling you, it becomes the greatest school there’s ever been, and it’s about trying to take communities with you when you’re trying to change things, but it’ll take brave people to actually say we’re not going to do that anymore.”

Watters says we’ve “got a long way” to go in prevention and “we have put our toe in the water, and sometimes we take it out because we think it’s too cold or too hot.”

There have been examples of progress though. Mitchell and Watters both cite the police and the fire services as examples of that.

Part of it is the integration of both services, fulfilling the aim of reducing duplication, but also the role of prevention in both bodies.

“I think there’s been real progress and possibly, in a way, the most remarkable progress, and in some ways most surprising, it has been in policing,” says Mitchell.

But Watters does suggest that those have been among the easier targets. “I think we have taken some of the easy decisions.

“Now, I’m not saying that the likes of putting police, fire and the likes of the care system into national organisations was easy. It’s not. But they were low lying fruit on that tree.”

There is still too much duplication in the public sector, he says, and we need to remove that to free up resources to do the early intervention.

McCormick also mentions progress on participation. “If you look at participation – that’s one of the four Ps – I think there’s a more hopeful story to tell.

“You’ve got The Promise as, I think, a world-class process of involving from the grassroots up children and young people, families, and all kinds of players in the care system.

“You think about what we’ve done with the social security system and experience panels and tried to build in disabled people’s experiences from scratch in a way that certainly the DWP has never managed to do.

“And there are other examples around homelessness of people with experience becoming not just people who tell their stories, which may be where we were 10 years ago, but becoming advocates for change, and being really clear sighted on the changes that are required and that are feasible.

“So I would not exaggerate where we are, but when I think about those examples, the poverty truth movement that we see in Glasgow and Dundee and Edinburgh, even in Shetland, I think we are in a very different place from 10 years ago in terms of expectations of involvement and co-design.”

And the COVID pandemic brought about rapid change in a number of areas, which shows it can be done.

“I think it comes down to priorities,” says McCormick. “Take something like rough sleeping, or the drugs crisis, which we’ve only very recently revisited as a national emergency, I think possibly, as a society, even as a group of policymakers, we can become so familiar with what the problem is, and so used to seeing incremental improvements, that we maybe lost sight of bigger and faster changes that clearly are possible.

“So I think there is something about it took a crisis to shift those things.”

“The pandemic’s been fascinating in that respect,” says Mitchell. “I think it’s highlighted rather than created more problems. It’s exposed weaknesses in our system, and it also highlighted strengths in our system. And we shouldn’t lose sight of those strengths and the lessons.

“And I think one of the big lessons for me has been that extraordinary work in community, local authority linkages and relationships.”

A lot of the best work and expertise around Christie principles is in local government, Michell says – “They didn’t need Christie to tell them to do it in many cases, they just got on with it and did it and they listened to the communities” – while the centralisation of power is one of the main barriers to really implementing the commission recommendations, particularly around empowerment.

“We’re still getting too much prescription from government, from central government, the Scottish Government,” says Mitchell.

“Far too much. You will do this. You will have this number of teachers in a classroom per pupil. It’s stupid. That’s not how you make good policy on education.

“I can take you to schools in Scotland where the resource that’s used for an extra teacher isn’t making a huge difference, but what would make a difference is to use that same resource for breakfast clubs.”

He adds: “Empowering, by definition, cannot be prescriptive. If you empower someone, you’re saying, here, I’m letting you decide.

“So if I empower you, or you empower me, you’re saying to me, you can do X, go and do it and I’ll give you the resources. Crucially, I’ll give you the resources.

“Because you could say to me, I’m empowering you to go out and do X, Y or Z, but if I’ve got no resources to do it, you’re not empowering me, you’re disempowering me.

“And that’s what I’m finding very worrying at the moment is that the government is disempowering local government, is taking away resources and therefore making empowering communities simply more difficult than it should be.”

Mitchell says we have a “very top-down, paternalistic culture” and “very power-hoarding government, both in the UK and in Scotland”.

Devolution hasn’t really altered that he says, and “I’m not convinced that the last decade we’ve seen a great alteration in that either.”

There is also “a very risk averse kind of culture in public institutions” that makes it difficult to try new things or challenge the status quo for fear of something going wrong.

Mitchell says: “Sometimes we have to accept that things will go wrong. And I think we’re not very good at that… If you start to truly decentralise and give people power, things will go wrong, as they do at the moment, but they’ll go wrong in smaller ways than they do at the moment.

“I mean, at the moment, take education, things are going wrong, and they go wrong for the whole of Scotland, whereas if you were decentralising it, then it would be going wrong in, maybe, East Lothian, where I live, or even within a school or whatever.

“But we need to get that bit right. And we’ve not got that right. And I think that stems from a very deep-rooted political culture of paternalism, top down, people doing things for you, doing things to you, rather than allowing you to do your own thing.

“So that, in a sense, is part of the kind of change that we’re looking for. Some would call it a cultural change; I prefer the term behavioural change. It’s a change in behaviour.”

Mitchell adds: “I think what we need to do there is to provide the resources and the power to empower local communities, local government, and they’re not to be divorced.

“Too much of the Scottish Government rhetoric divorces the two, and that’s stupid, it’s wrong, it’s a mistake, and it will not work.

“What the pandemic has shown us, abundantly, is that when local authorities and local communities work hand in hand together, they can do amazing things.

“We’ve seen this throughout this pandemic across Scotland. You disempower one, you disempower the other.

“And one of the things the Scottish Government needs to do is let go, let go of resources and let go of control”.

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