There is a renewed enthusiasm in Scotland for tracking and measuring the success of public service reforms. Such exercises could influence policy design and even raise questions about the wisdom of change
Is there a way to objectively assess the success of Scotland’s public service reform programme? What are the arrangements already embedded within national service design to monitor and track success? After the current programme of public service reform, Scotland’s public services are likely to look substantially different in the not too distant future. The major reforms being undertaken by the Scottish Government in health and social care and in the uniformed services will result in a combination of restructured local services and in newly formed national bodies.
The long-standing ambition of successive governments to integrate health and social care services is beginning to move a step closer – a consultation on proposed prescriptive legislation to replace the current ‘enabling’ legislation is under way. In short, if this legislation passes successfully through the Scottish Parliament, then integration of health and local government social care services will finally become a reality. Add to this the ongoing reform of police and fire services which, from next April, will change from locally administered bodies to single national bodies then the scale of current reform in Scotland becomes apparent.
The core expectation is that reform of a structural nature will usually result in financial savings or service improvement or both. For all of these services there will be changes to governance, administration and of course to financial management arrangements. Changes of this magnitude are not without risk. In fact the Scottish Parliament’s finance and justice committees, when scrutinising police and fire reform legislation, agreed with CIPFA’s views on the risks likely to emerge. The MSPs backed the need for appropriate transitional arrangements but, more fundamentally, agreed it was necessary to track the success of the reforms. The justice committee reported that post-legislative scrutiny ‘will be crucial’. Its report went on to call for a commitment from the Scottish Government to ensure there was information to assist in the process. The only conclusion to reach is that there is in fact no existing process.
If tracking and measuring the success of reforms now becomes an accepted norm by politicians, then this itself could be one of the biggest influences on future (and inevitable) public service reform programmes and on policy design in Scotland. The need to design reform programmes such that their success is capable of measurement will introduce a different discipline. Looking back over other reform programmes, there is generally an absence of honest transparent reflection to determine the success or otherwise of a particular change. Historically, the typical approach has been to implement corrective action but describe it as further reform.
While our current services will look structurally different and may cost less in future the ultimate test of success will surely be whether the services have improved from the user perspective. This is where ‘real’ post-legislative scrutiny will have to be focused. The creation of a series of metrics or principles to enable success to be measured will create a further challenge.
So the principle of proposed post-legislative scrutiny for uniformed services will surely now be extended to health and social care reform. Proving success (if this can be achieved) is one thing, but if the reform is considered to be unsuccessful, then what? The traditional nature of reform is that there is usually no return. Will the prospect of post-legislative scrutiny mean a renewed emphasis on and investment in policy implementation and a drive for absolute certainty before any national changes are made? More importantly, will it ensure that services improve or are delivered for less? If not, then surely the rationale for public service change can be challenged.
Don Peebles is policy and technical manager at CIPFA in Scotland