The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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Join Me Up Scotty: Shifting from the National to the Local

17th September 2014

Over the past few decades, our friends north of the border have often experimented with various innovative policy approaches – though never before on quite such significant issues as devolution, self-determination and democracy itself – providing a testing ground for ideas which sometimes then spread more widely across the UK.

Whatever the future of the Union, one idea currently being explored more seriously in Scotland than elsewhere is to rip up the arrangement of powers within local public bodies to help bring about more joined-up, integrated spending decisions.

The issue is not what should happen, but how to deliver that goal. The last Labour administration created Total Place with this ambition, the current government supported Community Budgets, Locality have described the failures of “silos” and disjointed services, and Chief Government Procurement Officer Bill Crowthers emphasises the role of ‘The Crown’ as ultimately one entity, trumping individual departmental perspectives. Yet almost nothing really ever happens. As Lib Dem Care Minister Norman Lamb said when setting up his Integration Pioneers, yet another initiative which stops short of truly destroying the borders between public spending territories, “we have heard people talk about integration before, but it has never truly taken hold”.

As the NAO said as long ago as 2002, “departments have often been concerned exclusively with achieving their own specific objectives reflecting responsibilities and funding which they can directly control. While this can be effective in delivering many of the Government’s priorities, it can result in departments adopting a too narrow “silo” approach and not considering the wider contribution which they can make to cross-cutting programmes for groups such as children, the elderly and the long term unemployed.” It is for this reason that progress is slow or non-existent. As long as accountability remains with individual departments, split from the top down, then public spending will be wasteful and disjointed.

Yet if we start to build from the bottom up, around the place and the person, then we have a chance to make the money work harder and overcome decades of division. There are some rays of light. When it comes to planning, councils now have a ‘duty to cooperate’, created in the Localism Act, which obliges planning authorities to engage across conventional administrative boundaries. Some joint appointments are becoming more common, across health and social care and other frontiers.

In Scotland, things could really be changing. First, through the experiences of ‘Aligned Budgets’ – not dissimilar to Alliance Contracting – where money is brought together with its use to be agreed by all public agencies while responsibility remains with each (to be separately held to account and audited, etc). ‘Pooled Budgets’ go even further by putting all the money into a single pot with one agency taking ultimate responsibility. But it’s the new Scottish Public Bodies (Joint Working) Act 2014, passed earlier this year, which could really tear up the map. The Act enables the establishment of joint boards and joint monitoring committees for the governance and oversight of health and social care services, forces health boards and local authorities to prepare joint integration plans, to delegate functions and appropriate resources to deliver these plans, requires the appointment of a joint chief accountable officer, and more.

These islands can take inspiration from this. As the Act takes effect we must build bridges to learn the lessons and take these ideas further. We can’t afford not to. One radical alternative, as the Social Economy Alliance has suggested, is for local public bodies to hold a veto over spending by others in their area, ensuring improved alignment and less waste. Spending, it seems, can be better together. This would be a rare but concrete lever, which could move us towards smarter, more joined-up deployment of taxpayers’ money in constrained times. Or a strengthened Social Value Act could move beyond public bodies being obliged to consider wider social value and go further, enabling each to challenge others for not doing so.

We all know we need to shift the balance from national silos to local and lateral, from blinkers to wide lenses and from waste to more effective public spending. But the only way to really make this happen is to bring us together, to create more mutual and co-operative relationships, to spread power, and to prevent individual state structures from acting as laws unto themselves.-SCOTTY#sthash.5loV5vKp.dpuf

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