That vision is not a power grab or about Councils seeking power for the sake of it, but recognises that improving lives across Scotland means doing more to promote and empower Councils to deliver locally delivered and accountable services.
Our vision must therefore provide a robust and convincing statement of the national aspirations of local government. These aspirations will not replicate what each Council individually will do but should suggest how we see local government as part of the governance of Scotland and at the heart of improving outcomes for communities.
Of course, a strong vision for local government in Scotland cannot be effectively prosecuted by COSLA alone – it will need Councils and Councillors to rally around those aspirations, drive them forward locally, and to be prepared to stand up for them in the face of external pressure.
The task for us all in the local government family is therefore to turn that strong vision into the real lifework which will make it happen – and that means securing an unambiguous place for local government as a tier in the governance of Scotland.
The vision we aspire to will not, of course, be value neutral. If we are to champion it, we will need a set of political principles to guide us sensibly through the process. Over the coming months we will be working with Councils to develop that work, but our principles might include:
Empowering local democracy
Scotland’s identity is to a large extent local – and people’s expectations are similarly defined.
We need to be confident about local democracy and recognise the difference that local government makes to people’s lives. Councils provide the glue that binds local communities, drive social cohesion, and support the most vulnerable people in society. Only locally delivered and accountable services are sensitive to individuals and communities, and to the issues that matter most within different communities – social problems in Glasgow are not the same as those in Argyll and Bute.
At the same time, people want control and choice over their lives, and so for our part we must also do more to empower and put faith in communities to design and implement services.
In short, achieving localism means national government enhancing the powers and flexibilities of local government. It also means recognising the Scottish Government’s right to set out objectives for Scotland but in ways that coerce local government into working only in the ways it wants. Equally, it means local government using its local mandate, flexibility, and services to deliver benefits for local communities within a national framework.
Integration not centralisation
If we believe that democracy is about bringing power closer to people, then we have to devolve power and guard against central control. Scotland needs real reform, not ill-judged reorganisation.
We may need to once again challenge the assumption that centralisation and restructuring is effective. The complex problems that we face cannot be solved by simplistic structural change, and any reading of history demonstrates that attempting to do so is costly, high risk and frequently does little or nothing to improve outcomes.
That is not to say we should simply argue for the status quo. Instead we will be promoting a reform process that looks at the whole of the public sector not individual parts, and looks at systems not structures. That also means funding early intervention and prevention, and ensuring that legislation does not undermine us.
Outcomes not inputs
People want better outcomes from the public sector in Scotland. Public services need to be similarly focused on the joint improvement of outcomes – to plan for outcomes, to budget for outcomes and to be accountable for outcomes.
COSLA and Councils have been the driving force behind an outcomes approach to service delivery in Scotland, that has ended ring fencing Council budgets to react to problems that communities encountered. We recognised that this was hugely expensive and did little to prevent problems from emerging in the first place.
We have made progress, but that process remains difficult, because outcomes are determined not just by local government, but by the way all public services do business. But rather than abandon reform, our vision will recognise that success will not be achieved by the next election or the next but one – although we will see real progress on the things that matter.
Local democracy at the heart of improvement and accountability
Communities rely on Councils, day in and day out, to deliver excellent services. Councillors work hard in a transparent, accessible way and are connected to the daily lives of communities.
Local government is already efficient and effective, and Councils are constantly developing new ways to improve. At the same time, Councillors are having to make difficult decisions, while delivering value for money, and in ways that address local priorities and needs.
Some argue that those local democratic arrangements don’t deliver and lead to so called ‘postcode lotteries’. We will need to challenge that misguided perception. Variation across Scotland reflects local democratic choices about priorities and circumstances. Indeed, if power was more fully devolved– including the power to raise more income locally – then local democracy would be even stronger; the post-code lottery is the result of being insufficiently local in our thinking. That is not to say that poor service quality is acceptable, and our vision must be prepared to bear down on that through effective benchmarking, self-assessment and scrutiny.
Delivering the Vision
In COSLA we believe that the ability of Councils to radically reform public services and work with in partnership is more important now than ever before and that their ability to do so should be enhanced rather than diminished. Regardless of devolution and independence, Councils are elected to hold local services to account, and their role in democracy should also be cemented into the constitutional debate.
We have begun to shape that vision on behalf of our membership, and expectations of the process are high. That is driven by the firm belief that for Scotland to be successful, local government needs to be successful, and in the coming months we will be describing explicitly what we want for Scottish local government to make this a reality.
We will of course be judged by our performance, and we will champion those successes. This is not something we have been particularly good at historically.
Finally, we have not forgotten that COSLA is a membership organisation and only functions with the active support of its members. We want the full support of our wider membership to drive forward that vision, and we will be working with Councils every step of the way to try to achieve that. And of course, COSLA Connections will be there throughout that process to keep you informed of our progress and how you can take part.