How do we avoid the Bunker Mentality with the Scots Public Sector?

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Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, September 11th 2010

We face an unprecedented crisis of the public sector, in Scotland and the UK, one which is financial, cultural and touches the question of the sustainability of public spending and the economy.

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, September 11th 2010

We face an unprecedented crisis of the public sector, in Scotland and the UK, one which is financial, cultural and touches the question of the sustainability of public spending and the economy.

Public sector ‘cuts’ and ‘reform’ are coming north of the border, but this leaves a whole host of questions, about the nature and scale of ‘the cuts’ and the kind of ‘reform’ we are away to witness.

This could be a once in a generation moment which passes into folklore like the 1930s and 1980s or 1979 winter of discontent, with the scale of cuts proposed by the coalition across the UK more than twice the size of the Canadian cuts and three times bigger than Sweden; the two examples constantly cited by the UK government.

The words ‘public spending cuts’ can strike fear and anxiety into voters and politician’s hearts, and so it has proven in Scotland. All of our mainstream political parties have chosen to be silent on any real detail, and instead make mood music about how they will be more forthcoming than all their opponents without doing so. Can Scotland’s public priorities be mostly preserved, or is what ‘The Economist’ has called our ‘supercharged welfare state’ ripe for the bonfire?

Beyond the public positioning as we approach the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, is the issue of leadership, making decisions and engaging in tough choices which voters feel are genuine and they understand. Can our politicians and wider public realm address the forward path of public spending in terms of values and priorities?

Such an approach would instead of making the easy cuts to non-statutory services and disadvantaged and vulnerable groups without an organised voice, map out a rationale for what kind of public spending we most want coming out of this difficult period.

The omens for this are not very encouraging, as post-devolution the groups who have most worked the political system and gained from public spending have been those embedded in the corridors of power with access who knew how to work the system pre-devolution. It has all contributed to devolution as a kind of ‘self-preservation society’ to quote Michael Caine in ‘The Italian Job’; this isn’t a left or right point, but one frustrated by the inertia, conservatism and system capture of much of Scotland.

If you think of the cumulative effects of the distribution of public spending first under Labour and the Lib Dems and then the SNP it has been skewed towards the middle class and professionals.

Nowhere under the Labour-Lib Dems or SNP has there been any awareness or analysis of which groups they are channelling what was in the first decade significant monies to. Neither took a conscious decision to say this is what we make the top spending priorities, and devote as much of public expenditure as possible to.

Public sector reform is directly linked to how we manage through these chastened times, with the need for pay restraint, pay freezes, job losses, flexible working and new forms of partnership.

One model on offer is the utopia of outsourcers – lets call it ‘the Serco world’ who provide a range of services, from maintaining the British nuclear deterrent, to Glasgow City Council’s IT services, and all Walsall Council’s children’s services. In the latter they took over the entire education system and in their words turned it around, ‘working collaboratively with the schools’ and allowing them to ‘shape their own destinies’, claiming it as ‘the fastest improving LEA’ in England.

Serco explicitly claim that ownership doesn’t matter – only results do; and that what is important is not being in ‘the public sector’, but ‘public service’. This sounds a persuasive argument until you remember the chaos of rail privatisation or the mess of BP outsourcing and buck passing in the Gulf of Mexico.

There are clearly advantages in genuine public-private partnerships and there are huge issues with the traditional model of public services, which still exist in parts of Scotland. Inefficient, inward looking, lacking innovation are some of the characteristics of our worst public services. How do we even begin to have a debate about getting rid of ‘bad teachers’, or challenging the ‘Spanish practices’ of medical consultants? Both are covered by powerful interest groups, the EIS and BMA.

Yet the best of the public sector matches the best of the private sector and often provide crucial local services which the private sector wouldn’t touch without huge subsidies. Then there is the blurred distinction in the real economy about what is ‘public’ and ‘private’. Glasgow City Council’s explosion of hands off agencies has raised issues of accountability, conflicts of interest and councillors being remunerated for sitting on what were previously council bodies.

Then there is the complex picture of private companies such as BAE Systems who as defence contractors still in a world with few private mercenary armies deal exclusively with governments around the world. One contract such as the UK Government’s order for two aircraft carriers – now in doubt – can affect the viability of the Govan and Rosyth docks.

For all the constant change and initiatives in the public sector, particularly in England, research by John Clarke of the Open University finds strong attachment amongst voters to distinctive public service values. People are generally despite years and years of UK government advocacy for more market-orientated services passionate about the idea of ‘equity’ above ‘efficiency’, although they would like a bit of both.

Voters have a powerful aversion to the idea of public service users as ‘consumers’ and ‘customers’; they instinctively find this leads towards a fragmented ‘choice’ agenda of individuals all attempting to act in their own self-interest and everyone in a sense losing. They are more comfortable with words which are context based such as ‘patient’ and ‘passenger’ which imply a relationship which both sides know, and have an implicit understanding of public service.

Scotland’s public sector has long been insulated by higher public spending per head compared to England and Wales. This even survived the Thatcher and Major years, a fact Mrs. Thatcher recognised in her memoirs, reflecting on how successive Tory Secretaries of State acted in the Scottish Office going ‘native’.

The scale of cutbacks is going to make the 1980s seem restrained, but so far Labour and SNP have played a war of posturing, rather than being constructive. One of the dangers we face is of top-down public sector reform being done to us, while the wider trade union movement digs in to a politics of resistance and defiance, like a remake of a bad 1980s film with a dwindling box office appeal.

Both the SNP and Labour have huge opportunities to tell a story not just about standing up to London and for Scotland, but taking national leadership, and telling a narrative which is about the kind of public services we want. And central to this is challenging trade unions to be constructive, proactive and imaginative in a way they haven’t been about work, jobs and organisation since the heyday of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders nearly forty years ago. Whoever can dare to move out of a bunker mentality could position themselves well for years to come, long after recession and ‘cuts’ have become part of our national folklore like the 1980s and the poll tax.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Gerry Hassan.

Read Gerry Hassan by visiting his blog: http://www.gerryhassan.com