Issue 6


By Jenny Brotchie, Policy Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

The challenges facing public services in Wales will be all too familiar to Scottish readers. An aging population, squeezed public sector budgets, climate change and other pressures on resources and long term social and economic inequalities. Challenges yes, but also a window of opportunity to think radically about the future of public services.

Weathering the Storm?  Is a rapid review of how six other small governments: Scotland, New Zealand, Quebec, Denmark, The Netherlands and Austria are responding to the looming storm.  It is a joint publication by the Carnegie UK Trust and Wales Public Services 2025. Although aimed primarily at a Welsh audience it is of relevance to policy makers in any small country facing up to similar challenges.

Our international review combined desk based research with interviews with key stakeholders from each country.

 Drawing on the examples of public service reform that we came across in our research we  identified four distinct approaches: rethinking (where a fundamental change in approach is adopted); reforming (where the focus is on improving delivery); restructuring (organising services in a different way), and retrenching (reducing services).

We were also particularly  struck by four recurring approaches that popped up again and again in examples where governments were rethinking services:

·         preventative approaches to public services: such as the moves toward minimum pricing of alcohol and investment in ‘Change’ funds in Scotland;

·         moves toward co-production: governments working in partnership with users and citizens to develop new public service solutions, such as Mindlab the public sector ‘innovation incubator’ in Denmark;

·         measuring public sector performance against outcomes – how things have actually changed for people -rather than just inputs,  outputs and processes. Such as New Zealand’s 10 ‘results’;

·         the use of technology and e-government to reduce costs. Austria and Denmark are both European leaders.

…. a surprise to our research team based in Cardiff and Dunfermline. We had not necessarily expected to find the strongest example of a whole systems approach in our small review so close to home!

Most of the countries that we looked at were using a mix of rethinking, reforming, restructuring and retrenching in different areas. What was clear however was that there were very few examples of a holistic cross departmental approach to public service reform. This was a surprise at first. Our hypothesis had been that a strategic, joined up approach would potentially be easier in a small country – not least because it is possible to get all of the key civil servants and ministers around a table – something that simply is not feasible in larger countries. We expected therefore to find a number of countries in our sample rethinking their approach to public service delivery on a whole systems scale.

In fact, we found only one jurisdiction where a public services reform strategy  had been developed in direct response to fiscal and demographic pressures and where we could discern a strategic approach that could be linked by a ‘golden thread’ to individual policy developments and the deployment of appropriate resources. That country was Scotland. Somewhat a surprise to our research team based in Cardiff and Dunfermline. We had not necessarily expected to find the strongest example of a whole systems approach in our small review so close to home!

What made Scotland stand out? Firstly, Scotland was the only country where we found a whole system reform strategy in response to our impending economic and demographic challenges.

The report of the Commission of the Future Delivery of Public Services (also known as the Christie Commission) was published in 2011. It sets out the challenges facing public services and Scotland establishes the direction of public service reform.

Most of the countries that we looked at were using a mix of rethinking, reforming, restructuring and retrenching in different areas.

The picture laid out in Christie is in many ways bleak: since devolution we have failed to tackle inequalities in a number of important areas: the Improvement Service has assessed variation in outcomes such as health and education in Scotland as ‘extreme’ by European standards. Our population is aging and demand for public services – particularly health and social care is rising. Climate change is causing us to rethink how we consume resources and plan future services. And, as if this was not enough the squeeze in public spending is likely to last for at least another 10 years. All in all a shortfall of approximately £39 billion between 2009/10 and 2025/26 was expected at the time of publication. Radical, whole systems change rather than simply efficiency savings was therefore required.

Christie’s recommendations on prevention, services built around community and individual capacity a focus on outcomes and joined up working received broad cross party support and are now common currency across the public sector.  A public services policy paper is rarely produced that does not contain some reference Christie directly or indirectly and this is significant. 

Secondly there was evidence in Scotland of ‘golden threads ‘ from strategy to action running through policy. The Change Funds to support preventative, integrated action on adult social care and tackling reoffending are good example as are initiatives like the early years collaborative.

It is of course early days. The recommendations in Christie represent a significant shift in approach that will not be easy to achieve in many areas and how effectively Christie’s recommendations are translated into action across the board will become clear over time.

One question that we asked ourselves was why had Scotland come close to a holistic approach and the other countries in our review not? One explanation may be that Scotland has the necessary structures in place to support a more holistic approach.  Central government departments have been abolished and local and national government now work together toward shared long term aims underpinned by the National Performance Framework (NPF), five strategic objectives and a shared set of 16 National Outcomes.

While the impact of the NPF has not yet been evaluated many believe that is has helped support a shift toward a more holistic and outcomes focussed models of public service delivery in Scotland.  Our recent report Shifting the Dial in Scotland looks at this in more detail. 

Our research suggests that Scotland may be in a fairly unique place amongst the six governments that we looked at. It important though not to be complacent. There are real challenges in achieving an effective shift to the ways of working laid out in Christie and much that we think policy makers in Scotland could learn from emerging innovation and successes and failures in preventative policies, co-production, outcomes based approaches and e-government in other small countries.

Jenny Brotchie is a Policy Officer with the Carnegie UK trust,  before that she was with the Sustainable Scotland Network staff team at Keep Scotland Beautiful

By Jenny Brotchie, Policy Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Issue 6


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