26 February 2013

S4M-05612 Public Services Reform (Developing New Ways of Delivering Services)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-05612, in the name of Kevin Stewart, on the inquiry into public services reform.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I want to focus on achieving efficiency in local government. For me, efficiency means delivering the best, most wide-reaching outcomes for the least use of available resources of all kinds. It is not simply a financial measure; it is about what the customers—the people in the area concerned—get from their council. Of course, efficiency has to be qualified by circumstance. Each council has a different circumstance. For example, the fact that school transport costs more per pupil in the Highlands than in Glasgow is not a measure of the relative efficiencies of the respective councils; clearly, it is an indication of the very different circumstances in which those councils find themselves.

During the committee’s inquiry—I joined the committee, with others, in September—it has been clear that councils are picking up on the greater freedom that they have been given since the Government, in 2007, removed almost all the ring fencing from the finance that they get. Previously, around 25 per cent of their finance was in nearly 200 separate streams of spending, in relation to which they had almost no discretion. The situation is quite different now, and different councils have responded in different ways. Councils also welcome the fact that their share of the overall budget that we in this Parliament get has risen under this Government. It is not as much money as we would wish to provide—there are ways in which we could provide more by changing the environment in which this Parliament operates, but that is not the core of today’s debate.

One key point is that the committee has engaged with communities across Scotland, which I found interesting and challenging. We have had excellent examples of what councils could be doing and excellent examples of what they are doing. There are plenty of good ideas out there. However, there is perhaps one area—service sharing—in which we have seen less movement than we might like.

I will illustrate that deficit with reference to one of the two councils in my constituency. I represent part of Moray Council’s area. Over a number of years, that Independent and Tory-led council has resisted the demands of SNP councillors to look at service sharing. The result is that the Independents and Tories are closing seven out of eight of the stand alone libraries in Moray, which is quite astonishing; they are removing all the arts funding, which is absolutely flabbergasting; and they are looking to remove principal teachers from a significant number of posts, which really is avoidable. Let us cut overheads by looking at sharing; let us not cut front-line services that are valued by the people in Moray.

I have no particular evidence that there is such an egregious example anywhere else—there may or may not be. However, that leads me neatly to benchmarking, which gives us an opportunity to identify areas for improvement by looking at the achievements of others. I am delighted that COSLA has taken the initiative and established a cross-cutting benchmarking framework for our councils.

The evidence that the committee has received has highlighted to me and to others a degree of confusion and a number of fears about what that benchmarking might mean. Some elected members appear to see benchmarking simply as another way for external commentators and councillors to knock lumps out of councils. That is not an unreasonable fear for people to have. However, if that proves to be the key focus of benchmarking and the use of the data that are made available as a result of its introduction, it will be a failed initiative.

Good benchmarking starts with normalisation—basically, standardising how the data come into the models—so that we can start to make valid comparisons between quite different circumstances. A council that feels that it has an opportunity for improvement in one policy area can then use the benchmarking model to find out which council it should be copying, and it will probably be copied in turn in some other policy area in which it is doing well.

We do not need to have all the data about every council’s every bit of activity. In the benchmarking model, we need information about the best examples and we need to have enough information to be confident that they really are the best so that copying them is relevant and of value.

By the way, benchmarking is not just about comparing the councils in Scotland. We should be comparing ourselves with anywhere in the world—let us benchmark and see if we can copy good examples, because that is one key way to make progress. We can deliver a great deal to the public sector by benchmarking; business can learn from the public sector, but the public sector can also learn from business. We should make the approach as broad as possible.


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