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Reforming public services in Scotland

Date:7 May 2013
Category:Comment & Analysis
Specialism:Social Research

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Reform to public services in Scotland is coming. When the Christie Commission published its 2011 report, setting out how the welfare state was facing its most serious challenges since inception, reform began in earnest.

The report, accepted in its entirety by the Scottish Government, outlined how increased demand for public services, driven in the main by an ageing population, has combined with the ongoing squeeze on public spending to create these challenges.  

These issues are highlighted by predictions that the population of pensionable age is set to rise by 26% between 2010 and 2035, while the working age population is set to rise by only 7% over the same period.[1] At the same time, it is estimated that the Scottish public sector budget is likely to suffer a £39 billion shortfall between 2010/11 and 2025/26, the year when the budget will finally return to 2010 levels in real terms. [2]

Policymakers tasked with implementing changes to public services therefore face considerable challenges. As well as likely resistance to significant change from within the organisations who deliver services, a range of evidence from opinion surveys highlights that the public too is likely to resist significant changes to the status quo and will be difficult to win over to radical reform.

In accepting the Christie report, the current Scottish Government has stated its commitment to shifting resources towards preventative action, better partnership working between service delivery bodies and enhanced reporting of public service performance. But what about more radical reform in terms of how services are planned and delivered?

Ideas about market-oriented management of public services, adopted by UK governments of all shades since the 1980s, have not gained traction with devolved administrations in Holyrood. In part this is down to these administrations reflecting the significantly different views of the public in Scotland, compared to attitudes south of the border.

Put bluntly, Scots view public services as hugely important, are increasingly satisfied with their delivery and are wedded to the current model of these services being delivered by public bodies. According to the 2011 Scottish Household Survey, 88% of adults in Scotland are satisfied with local health services, up from 81% in 2007. Similarly, levels of satisfaction with local schools rose by 6-points over the same period, from 79% in 2007 to 85% in 2011.

Moreover, when we compare Scotland with the rest of the UK, we different attitudes to how public services should be delivered and funded. For example while the appetite for increasing taxes to pay for additional spending on health, education  and social benefits has declined in both Scotland and England during the 2000s, it remains an option more favoured in Scotland, with 40% supporting such a policy move, compared to 30% of the public in England.

When it comes the delivery of public services, the strength of public opinion in Scotland against radical change becomes clear. Scots have clearly different views from their neighbours about how public services should be delivered in order to maximise value for money, understand what service users need, provide care and compassion and provide a professional and reliable service.

On each of these performance criteria, Scots are clear that public authorities are best placed to provide public services. Moreover, public opinion surveys illustrate that the appetite for the involvement of the private sector in the provision of public services is significantly higher among the public in England and Wales than it is in Scotland.

When asked which sector would be best at providing public services that best understand what service users need, over half of Scots (54%) believe public authorities do the best job while just 11% believe that the private sector would do a better job, compared to figures of 30% for public authorities and 16% in favour of the private sector among adults in England and Wales. Similarly, 58% of Scots believe that public bodies would provide the most professional and reliable public services, compared to 19% who would favour the private sector in that regard. This contrasts with figures of 30% for public bodies and 29% for the private sector among adults in England and Wales.

Even when asked to consider which sector would provide the best quality service for the money, a measure where one might expect public bodies to do less well, 50% of Scots believe the public sector would provide the best public services, compared to 17% in favour of the private sector. Again, this contrasts significantly with England and Wales, where 27% believe the private sector would perform best on this measure, while 25% preferred public bodies.

This survey data has significant implications for policymakers in Scotland. Any moves to ‘privatise’ the delivery of public services in Scotland is likely to be met with much sterner public opposition than is the case south of the border. While this may not be on the immediate political agenda, it is clear that the public is very much supportive of the status quo in terms of how these vital services are provided and delivered.

The current political discourse in Scotland is dominated by next year’s independence referendum. But regardless of the outcome of that vote, and the results of the Westminster and Holyrood elections of 2015 and 2016, the need for changing the public services landscape will be an ever present challenge. Whoever is charged with delivering reforms will need to be wary of the strength of public opinion and work hard to ensure that the public is brought along every step of the way.

This article was originally published on Scottish Policy Now

[1] http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/59613.aspx

[2] http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/331661/0107923.pdf

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