In 2011, Campbell Christie published the well-researched and well-evidenced Christie Commission report. It was universally welcomed as a blueprint for developing and delivering public services in Scotland. We all understood and accepted the critical importance of its four pillars of People, Prevention, Performance and Partnership, and how they interconnected.
The Christie Commission stated that public services are important to achieving a fair and just society by supporting disadvantaged and vulnerable people. In other words, public services are crucial to tackling Scotland’s endemic inequalities. Public services are social investments; they educate and house people, keep people healthy, and enable transport and communications. They contribute to improving the economy by helping people develop workforce skills, provide direct and indirect employment and generate opportunities for the private sector. It is worth repeating this, 10 years on.
So where are we in 2021, at the start of Poverty Challenge Week? Yes, we have moved forward in some ways. The Accounts Commission’s Best Value reports on councils have reported lots of progress over the past decade. And in the past 18 months, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, councils have made further significant progress in how they work with their communities and their third sector partners to deliver services and to support those most in need. Councils and their local partners have explored innovative ways of working, and dispensed with organisational barriers. They put Christie’s four pillars right at the heart of their pandemic response.
But is this enough?
Inequalities such as poverty, poor health, poor education were significant in Scotland before the pandemic. They are now worse. They are deeper and broader, so that it is even tougher for people to make decisions about heating their homes or eating, about whether to pay for transport or buy clothes for school and work. This is not the Scotland we should be living in.
The shortcomings highlighted in 2011 in how public services were delivered are still all too real in 2021. They undermine our capacity to produce better outcomes and help people live better lives.
There is still much fragmentation and complexity in how services are organised, resulting in duplication and confusion. Yes, services need to be delivered to fit local needs, but good practice from elsewhere is not embraced and adopted enough.
Services are still often delivered ‘top down’, with organisational interests coming before those of the people who receive those services. The focus on putting the person at the centre of service delivery is still not the norm and it is disempowering. There are good examples of where this problem has been addressed, but it is not at scale.
The focus on performance is still often on inputs - how many beds in hospitals, how many teachers or police officers we employ - rather than a clear understanding of the quality of the service and what matters to people. How good is the care provided? How confident do children feel? What has been people’s experiences? And then, how do we ensure these experiences influence the services provided?
It is now even tougher for people to make decisions about heating their homes or eating, about whether to pay for transport or buy clothes for school and work. This is not the Scotland we should be living in.
Our approach to budgeting has been too short-term. We need to look much further ahead to the implications of our budget decisions and make sure that they are focused on the improvements we want to achieve.
Ten years ago, the point that many of us really focused on in a new way was prevention. Yes, it had been recognised before, but Christie gave it urgency and prominence in a compelling and powerful way. Stopping bad things happening. Not wasting public funds on services that shouldn’t be needed.
Now, more than ever, we must prioritise prevention. Crucially, it is important that it fits with the priorities and strategies of our service partners.
All of this requires strong and collaborative leadership. It requires our politicians to be bold and put our citizens, particularly our most vulnerable citizens, right at the centre of decisions. It requires our executives to be clear and precise about what is required, based on evidence and experience of those living in our communities. It requires all of us to play our part in making change happen. To encourage innovation, to manage risk, to forgive mistakes and then to learn from those mistakes and quickly adapt.
The world has changed over the last 18 months, but the Christie Commission resonates and guides us as well today as it did in 2011. As we launch Poverty Challenge week and as we move towards recovery from the pandemic - when so many stepped up and changed their services to meet new needs - the importance of innovative social investment in our public services and thus in the lives of our people is now critical.
We cannot contemplate thinking that in 10 years' time we have still not addressed Christie's recommendations. It really is now or never.
Elma Murray, Interim Chair of the Accounts Commission