Saturday, September 15, 2007

SNP to make the grade on service reforms ?

Can the SNP do for services in Scotland what it has always promised ?

The Scotsman reports :

Does SNP have recipe for service reforms?


IT'S all in the name. First, we had ministers becoming Cabinet secretaries. Then we had the Scottish Executive to the Scottish Government. Now we have "a programme for Scotland" to replace its predecessor "programmes for government". Is there any policy substance to these changes or is this yet another political re-branding exercise? Are we witnessing a simple shift of emphasis or a real shift of governmental gear?

Let's start with the language. Are these name changes a signal of the start of a new narrative for Scotland? An initial look at the programme for Scotland isn't entirely convincing. It does what all previous programmes have done: it simply seeks to "right the wrongs of the previous years". The politics of grievance may help the activist core of the party in power feel their efforts have been worthwhile, but a wee glance forward will see the rest of the population looking for more. There's no thanks in politics for doing what you're expected to.

Each of these policy promises need to be delivered if democratic accountability is to regain much of its lost ground, but the removal of one policy must be followed by the introduction of an alternative. Labour's greatest mistakes in the two high-spending sectors of education and health both demonstrated the danger of creating policy vacuums.

In education, the removal of school league tables left an information black hole for parents, one filled by a gleeful press, which simply collected the data and presented it in its unvarnished glory. Similarly so in health, where the removal of the internal market left a gaping hole in the heart of the NHS, into which billions of increased spending simply disappeared. So has the Scottish Government learnt these lessons?

On first inspection, it would appear not. Scrap the tolls on bridges. Then, replace that rather rich revenue stream from other parts of the road network? No sign of it. Scrap graduate fees. Recoup the money through an agreement with Westminster for the introduction of a graduate tax? Not likely. Freeze Council Tax. Fine. But why not avoid the need for loosening the purse strings to compensate our councils by hosting a cross-party discussion on a local income tax?

New politics? Not yet. Same old flavour - Scotland's favourite political dish - of social democratic soup.

There are, however, signs the new SNP government has the ingredients for a tasty scotch broth. Into this particular mix it has thrown Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Natural Heritage for starters, along with a few other public bodies. The recipe is becoming clear: strip off the unnecessary packaging, heat well and reduce.

These structural changes are also being liberally sprinkled with a new democratic dusting. Local democratic drivers are being introduced in the NHS. Direct elections to our out-of-touch health boards are being discussed. The sticking plaster of blocking reform in hospitals can only last for so long. Lasting change must be implemented somehow. It's certainly time.

In education, the picture isn't so clear. The attempt to introduce the impossible has overshadowed the real challenge. Cutting class sizes to 18 in our primary schools will prove unattainable in many parts of the country. The problem with this pledge is back to the importance of language. "Cutting class sizes" fits on a pledge card. "Reducing the pupil/teacher ratio in order to allow teachers more time with each pupil, to reduce the possibility of disruption and to allow the introduction of setting" would need a whole leaflet. The issue is a diversion.

The real challenge in our schools is one of demand management. A declining pupil population has left far too many empty seats in the country's classrooms. The trouble with trying to match the national supply of school places to the localised demand for them, as the SNP and their Lib Dem coalition partners in Edinburgh Council have found out, is that closing schools is about as hard as it gets for local councillors. Ironically, the political benefits show through the system very quickly indeed with the educational benefits being felt by those who really matter, the pupils, well within the normal political cycle of four years.

So, there is not yet an emerging, coherent plan for public service reform, but there are some encouraging early signs. Structural reform is definitely on the agenda. Systemic change is in the mix, too. The real test will be whether the SNP government can increase public engagement in our public services.

• Ross Martin is policy director at the Centre for Scottish Public Policy.

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