Change for the Better
Held three weeks after the Scottish local government elections, this year’s SOLACE (Scotland) Conference – Change for the Better – took place against a radically different political landscape: 30% of Elected Members were elected to office for the first time and there have been numerous changes of administrations across the country, with some interesting coalitions formed. But while the landscape may be different, many of the challenges remain the same, and this year’s conference therefore explored what local government can and should be doing to build a better Scotland.
Local authorities were challenged, in particular, to raise the bar in promoting economic growth. Peter Grant of the Entrepreneurial Exchange called for the public sector to become a champion for business, to listen to business and to ensure that rules are business friendly. George Black, Chief Executive of Glasgow City Council, asked whether local authorities were being strategic enough in their approach to jobs and the economy: should, for example, local authorities be looking to target the pension funds they hold for local investment? Likewise, given the projected rise in demand for social care, shouldn’t SOLACE take the lead in developing a national strategy for training the future social care workforce?
Delegates were also challenged to raise the bar by Sir Harry Burns, the Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, who asked ‘Why don’t we aim to close young offenders’ institutions?’ Challenging the preconceived notion that Scotland is an inherently sick nation, he outlined the connection between the loss of employment that Scotland suffered in the 1970s and the emergence of its poor health record. A comprehensible, manageable environment is essential for good health, he argued, because if individuals do not feel they are in control of the world around them, they experience chronic stress. To improve health outcomes, the challenge is therefore to give people control over their lives and to increase social connectedness in communities that are alienated. The correct public sector approach, he argued, is to co-produce.
But what should local authorities do to help people become more connected?One key theme that emerged was the importance of Chief Executives creating an organisational culture in which staff feel genuinely empowered to do different things and to do things differently. Senior managers must create an environment in which staff are supported and equipped with the skills they need, and are not reluctant to try new things for fear of failure.
While delegates were reminded of the important and often innovative work that local government does every day in building a better Scotland, it is clear that more remains to be done.To raise the bar, local authorities need to think more strategically,engage better with business and make better use of evidence-based practice. More importantly, though, it is not enough for local government to take action in isolation. Imposing initiatives on communities is not the way forward. Rather, it is for councils and partner organisations to work with communities, to enable them to produce their own solutions. Only in this way can Scottish local authorities and communities change together for the better.
Chair, SOLACE (Scotland)
These, and other challenges facing local public services will be the focus of discussions at the SOLACE Summit in Coventry on 16-18th October. More information and details of how to book are available here.