Issue 2: March 2012

IN MY VIEW...

By John Morrison, former BBC Scotland Chief Political Correspondent and Owner, Morrison Media Strategies

How often do you think Bob Dylan has read the headline: “The times they are a changing” when little of any significance was happening? How often has the iconic poet and wordsmith chucked a newspaper aside, hacked off that his rebel words have become a tired and overused cliché?

But I wonder if the great man who also penned the less well known “Highlands” – as you’d expect, a superb song - is watching with his radical eye what’s been happening in Scotland since May last year.

there is a quiet revolution underway in parts of public/civic Scotland that means things will never be the same again, regardless of the percentages in the referendum in 2014.

Scotland is definitely “a changing”. How much is still unclear.

The huge surge of publicity for the SNP and Alex Salmond and the high-octane exuberance of party followers, old and new, has quietened down a bit. Ok, a just little bit. But that was always going to happen.

This is a party that certainly knows how to court peaks and popularity but their increasingly sophisticated strategists will also have known that it was impossible to maintain the same high levels of momentum until Autumn 2014. They would be knackered come the anniversary of Bannockburn.

However, there is a quiet revolution underway in parts of public/civic Scotland that means things will never be the same again, regardless of the percentages in the referendum in 2014.

Take the Scottish Police Service.

During the 2011 Election campaign I chaired a Question Time debate of the party leaders at the Scottish Police Federation annual conference.

At a time of high intensity partisanship in Scottish politics and with only days to go to an historic election, we had somehow arrived at a place where all the main parties, apart from the Lib Dems, were in favour of disbanding Scotland’s eight distinctive Police Forces and introducing a single Scottish Police Service.

This consensus brought the SNP, Labour and the Tories into the same tent and has happened very quietly. Almost unnoticed. But it is a hugely significant move.

The same is happening with the regional Fire Brigades. So, very soon, barring an almighty, uniquely choreographed, somersault involving a lot of MSPs, we will also have a single Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

If your house is on fire or about to be robbed, the argument goes that the badge on the side of the fire engine or the police car is not important. What matters is that they arrive on time to deliver effective action. This view is prevailing. Why?

When you ask the politicians three common themes emerge: cost, focus on outcomes and common sense.

If your house is on fire or about to be robbed, the argument goes that the badge on the side of the fire engine or the police car is not important. What matters is that they arrive on time to deliver effective action

Eight services cost too much and it is common sense in straitened times to amalgamate.

So, if we have managed to get to this stage with little or no political rancour because it seems like the right thing to do, what are the other areas of the public sector where cost control and common sense can quietly prevail?

I attended a very convivial networking event recently where one of the guests, an intelligent and considered man who has been around a few balance sheets and P&L accounts in his time, posed the question: “What kind of Scotland do we want in five years time?”

One of the suggestions was a smaller public sector with the private sector taking over many of the back office facilities in Councils and Health Boards and Quangos. There was no dissent.

But yet, with Council elections on the horizon in May, Edinburgh councillors recently cancelled an outsourcing deal at the 23rd hour that would have saved tens of millions of pounds for the Council tax payer, created a serious number of jobs and produced other significant wins for the city. Aberdeen City Council has recently shelved a similar plan and could ditch it completely.

But how long can this go on?

It has been widely reported that Scottish Enterprise and Skills Development Scotland saved 40% by outsourcing their IT. If anything, the service improved and, critically, there were no redundancies.

The McClelland report, which assessed potential savings in the public sector for the Scottish Government, said that more than £800m could be cut from public expenditure over five years. Some IT experts say that this could be a conservative figure

40% might be a one off. But, imagine, if only 20% of savings could be realised across other areas of the public sector. Outsourcing could save hundreds of millions of pounds for the public purse and bolster and protect front line services. Jobs protected by TUPE arrangements could be safer than jobs left in the public sector.

The McClelland report, which assessed potential savings in the public sector for the Scottish Government, said that more than £800m could be cut from public expenditure over five years. Some IT experts say that this could be a conservative figure if a proper plan of outsourcing was put in place.

The figures are mindboggling and difficult for any Government to ignore.

Better Government for less cost might sound like a Tory policy, but I suspect the Labour party, that has never properly tackled productivity issues in the public sector north of the border, would be very happy to see the SNP Government begin to resolve this challenge.

A slimmed down public sector would make the fiscal life of the Government (regardless of political complexion) a lot easier and, again, leave more money for front line services.

Will we see a consensus emerge similar to what has happened with the Police and Fire Service? We might. The savings will be hard to argue against. Particularly if the private sector can protect the jobs that transfer.

So, more than two years before the historic referendum, perhaps things could be “a changing.” Bob, it might be time for a new song for a new Scotland. I love the lyrics, but Aberdeen still won’t be in the “Highlands”.

 

 

 

 

John Morrison is the owner of Morrison Media Strategies a leading PR, Public Affairs and Media Training company. Previously John was Chief Political Correspondent, Europe Correspondent and BBC Network News Scotland correspondent.

By John Morrison, former BBC Scotland Chief Political Correspondent and Owner, Morrison Media Strategies

Issue 2: March 2012

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