I'm currently doing some work on accountability in a world of more decentralised services. As part of some thinking about the position in Scotland I went back and read (I have to admit for the first time) the Christie Commission report on the future delivery of public services published this summer http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2011/06/27154527/0
It makes extremely interesting reading, the more so when compared to the Open Public Services white paper (OPSWP) setting out the direction of public service reform in England.
The five principles set out in the OPSWP are - increasing choice; decentralisation of services to the lowest appropriate level; being open to a range of providers; fair access; and accountability to users and taxpayers.
The starting point for Christie is an analysis which suggests that the main issues are:
- taking demand out of the system through preventative actions and early intervention to tackle the root causes of inequality and negative outcomes;
- working more closely with individuals and communities to understand their needs and mobilise a wider range of Scotland’s talents and assets in response to these needs, and to support self reliance and community resilience
- tackling fragmentation and complexity in the design and delivery of public services by improving coherence and collaboration between agencies and sectors; and
- improving transparency, challenge and accountability to bring a stronger focus on value for money and achieving positive outcomes for individuals and communities.
The commission report is powerful in the connection that it draws between the need for greater involvement of the community in helping to design services; the need for much more integration including in budgeting, governance, duties and accountability in order to be able to respond effectively; the emphasis on prevention in order to save money in the longer term and the need for shared approaches in the shorter term to improve value for money.
The contrast between the two approaches hardly needs drawing out although it is of course fair to say that the OPSWP does make some play of community budgets and a role for local authorities to integrate resources around some of the most intractable problems, particularly where these are related to families. But this comes across as something of an adjunct to the main proposals.
If one looks at the five principles in the OPSWP and compares them to the very forthright thinking in Christie about the future reform of public services it shows an absolutely massive difference in emphasis.
The Scottish principles are all around co-design with communities and the need for an overhaul of the relationships within and between public agencies to move towards much greater integration of decision making (possibly - although on this they are clearly sceptical - a single public authority for an area); joint planning and budgeting; and shared services whether back or front office with robust external challenge from well informed and powerful regulators and from central and local bodies holding each other to account for their respective roles in achieving defined outcomes which are about addressing root inequalities (rather than focusing on mitigation measures to achieve fair access in a world which may well remain inherently unequal).
The routes that England and Scotland follow in relation to public service reform look set to diverge rapidly and significantly if the Scottish Government follow anything approaching the course suggested in Christie.
As a footnote I did word searches for the terms 'decentralisation', 'choice' and 'competition'. They each turned up a blank.