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School of reform

School of reform

Over the past few years, the need to reform our public sector has become increasingly pressing. The publication of the Christie Commission report heralded an important landmark and provided the public sector and the Scottish Government with a blueprint for making vital changes to the way in which services are delivered in Scotland. However, it is now over two years since Christie and while the ideas mooted are starting to underpin policy, the question remains: is change happening quickly enough?

Over 16 months, the Scottish Parliament’s Local Government and Regeneration Committee undertook an inquiry into public sector reform and published their findings at the end of June. During that time, the committee heard evidence from many witnesses, examining subjects such as benchmarking and community planning. The publication of their final report was eagerly anticipated and yet it made for uncomfortable reading.

The committee found public service reform is not happening at the rate or scale needed or desired, and that many community planning partnerships (CPP) are not delivering. It stated that “deep seated” attitudes and behaviours lead many staff to perceive and “hide” behind barriers that are hindering progress. One of the committee’s most damning statements was that too many CPPs are seen as disconnected from the people they serve, while “leadership has been lacking and communication at all levels poor”. It said that in practice, this has meant little real improvement in services or prospects for some of Scotland’s most disadvantaged communities.

These damning views were robustly rejected by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA), with the organisation stating that change was both prevalent and welcomed within local government. However, despite this, the doubts raised by the Holyrood committee remain.

As Scotland marches closer to its independence referendum, many are taking advantage of increased public awareness and interest in the potential changes to pose their own questions about how Scotland’s public services and political systems should work.

Speaking during one of the Government’s summer cabinet meetings, First Minister Alex Salmond promised everyone in Scotland would have their say in shaping a written constitution for an independent Scotland. He went on to outline how that constitution might look and how it might make a difference to people’s lives. An interesting point is Salmond highlighted is the importance of citizen participation. He said: “Modern countries use their constitutions to articulate their values, to define who they are. They don’t only protect human rights; they enhance liberties and define responsibilities. Scotland’s constitution will do the same. It will make clear that it will uphold the values, rights and responsibilities of the people, of the community of the realm of Scotland. By doing so, it will make a real difference to people’s lives.

“In all of this, we will adhere to one fundamental principle. In Scotland, the people are sovereign. Not the Government, not the Parliament, not even the monarch, but the people. In Ireland, citizen participation is a crucial part of the current convention on the constitution. In Scotland, we have a chance to learn from that example and others. The process of drawing up a constitution in itself will energise and inspire people. It will provide us with a chance to reflect on the democracy and society we want to live in, the values that we most cherish.

“Independence offers the opportunity for Scotland to move away from that outdated and profoundly undemocratic Westminster system – one which, for two thirds of my life, has delivered governments with no popular mandate in Scotland. We will move instead to a more transparent, democratic and effective system of government – a government of the people, by the people and for the people of Scotland.”

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) Scotland is one organisation which has been working for the past year to look at how Scotland’s democracy could be improved in the context of the independence referendum. The findings from their Democracy Max concept make interesting reading. ERS Scotland posed the question: “What would make a good Scottish democracy?” and then brought together a cross-section of over 80 Scots from a range of places and backgrounds to a day-long People’s Gathering and asked them what was wrong with politics and democracy and what could be made better. Over the last year they have taken the findings of that People’s Gathering and discussed them with experts, academics, campaigners, activists and others in roundtable sessions, each followed by a public meeting.
Willie Sullivan, ERS Scotland director, said the organisation believes the Scottish independence referendum debate is an opportunity to challenge Scotland’s political system to change, to confound the low expectations voters have of politics, and to deliver on the high hopes they still hold for democracy.

He said: “We started from the position that politics is too important to be left to politicians. So we asked our People’s Gathering to tell us what they thought was wrong with democracy and what could be made better. But we didn’t just take them at their word. Instead we continued to discuss, question and delve in order to understand more fully what was not working and to make sure the solutions we suggested were credible and workable.

“It was clear from the investigation that formal politics is in trouble and, rightly or wrongly, people blame political parties for much of that. If trust is to be returned to politics some fundamental changes are required. I am delighted to say the participants in our investigation have suggested a number of thought-provoking ideas. Many of them are not new, but they do have a renewed relevance at this time. We have weighed up the pros and cons of each in our discussions and feel they deserve consideration as interventions to improve our democracy. We suspect some of them are more vital than others and so should be acted on quickly.

“There are some big ideas for political reform here, such as a Citizens’ Assembly as a second chamber of parliament, selected like a jury, and Mini-Publics where people can run their own communities. It may seem strange that an organisation that has campaigned for fairer elections for over 130 years is saying that we require more involvement of ordinary citizens rather than elected representatives in decision-making and scrutiny. However, our belief in the importance of representative democracy has led us to realise that in a time of untrusted elites, social media and ‘big data’, we need to evolve our political system to keep pace with the 21st century. The involvement of people who are not primarily concerned with power or with winning elections means that representative democracy can be given a new legitimacy by having the right checks against the powerful. This is not an alternative to elections but a way to return legitimacy to elected representatives.”

Some of the key recommendations from Democracy Max include:

‘Mini-Publics’ – deliberative local groups working alongside representative democracy and empowering people to run their own towns and villages

A Citizens’ Assembly – a chamber of citizens, possibly selected like a jury, to check and challenge elected politicians
Party funding reform – parties funded in transparent ways other than through big donations from organisations or rich individuals

Better media – as traditional business models struggle and press barons are exposed, our participants suggested ways for a greater number of voices to be heard and for media to operate more explicitly in the public interest

Openness and transparency – an assumption that information should be publicly available and a requirement to make the case as to why any information is not

Lobbying reform – a statutory register of lobbying which sets out who is lobbying whom and why

Constitutional clarity – a written set of principles for Scots to unite around, setting out who we are and by which rules we wish to be governed

An inbuilt system to review and advise on how the Scottish Parliament and Government are faring in abiding by these principles.

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