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#ChristiePlus10: Imagining the change

This opinion piece is over 1 year old

I still hang on to the hope of Christie. Ten years down the road.

I hang onto it because the report – much like the man – had a lot of sensible things to say. It reflects a consensus in Scotland about why and how public services need to change. It gives us a common language and common narrative to use to imagine that change.

And – even ten years later – it has real currency. It’s a hopeful agenda.

The question that’s begun to pound in my brain since though, is: if we know this, why don’t we do it? And with the publication of the Hard Edges Scotland report in 2019 this pounding became a loud, clanging bell. I suspect I’m not alone in hearing it.

There’s plenty of progress to point to: the momentum of the Housing First model, the listening at the heart of new social security plans, the authenticity and ambition of The Promise. The challenge I see is to systematise the work these world-leading examples are doing, making them the norm not the exemplar, making them the way we do things.

In my working life – which has been mainly in third sector funding - I’ve spent quite a bit of time with the tools Christie gave us for change: participation, partnership, prevention and performance. Working alongside communities, third sector organisations and public bodies I’ve seen this focus make a difference.

But making it the norm can be hard and its worth spending some time examining why. My insight on this comes partly from a lesson a colleague taught me as we were puzzling with partners about working together in localities. He said, “you know, sometimes people have reasonable reasons not to do things.”

It’s easy to pretend that change doesn’t happen because other people are unreasonable, selfish, stupid or even evil. That’s mostly not the case. But people do have vested interest. Mostly people are looking at things from where they stand and worrying about reasonable things: how much money do I have to run this service; is there someone at risk who might not be safe, and will I be held accountable; will my job be lost if change happens. If I let go of my power, what standing will I have?

From the outside it can feel like the system is actively resisting change. But are there ‘reasonable reasons’ why Scotland hasn’t seen the major shift towards prevention that Campbell Christie so beautifully dreamed of?

I’ll offer three that I hear from people Corra works alongside:

  1. The economics reason – we know what prevention looks like and we know it makes a difference but it’s hard to quantify the real financial savings to the public finances, we can’t uncover what it costs to keep an older person too long in hospital or bring someone from prison to attend a court date, or keep buying B&B accommodation for a young family. Especially when we are in the third sector and often working ‘outside the system’.
  2. The attribution reason – we know this saves real money but it’s not our money, savings from reducing reoffending are seen in the court system not the prison service, savings from better school meals are seen in health budgets not schools’ budgets, savings from maintaining long term tenancies rather than short term shelters can’t be used to pay for the better mental health support that made it possible. Silo budgets really don’t help.
  3. The disinvestment reason – shifting from crisis to prevention saves money in theory but those savings only exist when we stop doing something, the building that’s closed due to lack of demand, the salary of the person delivering an unneeded crisis service. Savings have consequences that are hard to deliver and come with major reputational risks.

We should have these reasonable reasons in our sights. If we name them, we can tackle them.

That’s the hard graft; the sticky, messy bit in the middle of change. The lifting the bonnet on the engine of public services and seeing the resource models, the referral pathways, the risk assessments and the countless other well-meaning rules that make it hard to sit down with a person in front of you, and help.

Carolyn Sawers is Acting Chief Executive of the Corra Foundation



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