Reflections from the COSLA Conference 2017

LGiU Scotland Director Andy Johnston was a judge at the 2017 COSLA Excellence Awards. He reflects here on the experience, and what it tells us about local government in Scotland right now.

This year was the first time I have attended the COSLA conference as an awards judge. I hope it’s the first of many, as the experience of judging was truly inspiring. My congratulations go out to all the winners and shortlisted teams – see the full list of winners here.

One recurring theme in the winning teams was the innovation they brought to tough problems, and a relentless focus on better outcomes.

A focus on outcomes was also the response to accusations from local government of the centralising tendencies of Scottish Government. There is a compelling logic to this argument. If we just freed our minds and thought of a better world unshackled by existing constraints, we’re bound to come up with an improved way of doing things.

So far so good. However, the real test is that new solutions should also be free from ‘capture by the centre’. In his speech at the COSLA and Improvement Service annual conference on the day of the awards, the deputy First Minister made it perfectly clear that the motivation behind his education reforms was primarily driven by accountability. He is responsible for education, and therefore needs to use all the means at his disposal to fulfil those responsibilities. He cited a question to the First Minister that day on knives in schools, pointing out that even though the problem was about councils collecting data, it was the government at Holyrood that had been questioned in the Scottish Parliament.

For reasons that need further investigation, the First Minister felt unable to redirect the question to those councils responsible.

The concern is that Ministers feel they carry the responsibility for delivery – and with that responsibility the weight of public expectation for key policy outcomes. This national accountability is extremely powerful and will trump any attempt to deliver better outcomes in a way that is outside the control of Ministers and Holyrood. To really change things will require a significant culture shift in the levels of governance in Scotland.

To start with national politicians, there is a need to accept that they cannot and should not be solely responsible and accountable for a whole policy area. That accountability is shared between all parties – central government, local government, NHS; indeed all community planning partners and the public themselves. There is also a challenge here to local government to step up and say, yes, we are responsible and accountable for delivering services, this issue is under our control. If it goes wrong ask us, not Holyrood.

This is not an easy thing to do, but it is essential that locally accountable, elected politicians and the talented teams of officers in local government can have the responsibility for local delivery of outcomes, taking their moment in the spotlight as demonstrated at the award ceremony.

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