Exploring the scale of the challenge facing Scotland’s councils

In our 2015 overview report on local government in Scotland, we said: ‘Councils tell us that they should manage budgetary pressures in 2015/16 but the years beyond pose a level of challenge not previously experienced.’

The Commission recognises the achievement of councils – both councillors and officers – in meeting these challenges to date.

What we say in this year’s overview is that the scale of the challenge in 2016/17 and beyond has significantly increased because of the local government funding settlement. This has substantial implications for services to the public, councillors and the local government workforce.

Next year councils and health boards, through health and social care partnerships, jointly have the responsibility to make a significant start in the shift from hospital care to care at home and care in the community. This is the most far-reaching public service reform since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

nr_160317_local_government_overview_cover And these challenges are compounded by: a one-year financial settlement, cost pressures and increasing demands on services from an ageing and growing population. The majority of our recent Best Value audits have highlighted a dependency on incremental changes to services, increasing charges and reducing employee numbers in order to make savings. But these are neither sufficient nor sustainable solutions set against the scale of the challenge facing councils. Cuts can only be part of the solution. What’s required is a more strategic approach, longer-term planning and a greater openness to alternative forms of service delivery.

It’s challenging for councillors and officers to fundamentally change the way a council has provided a service over a lengthy period of time. But there are significant consequences to not conducting comprehensive option appraisals: services may not be as efficient or effective as they could be and may not be achieving value for money, and resources may not be directed to priority areas such as preventative services. In considering all viable options, it’ll be essential that councillors are provided with comprehensive and objective information on the cost, benefits and risks of each option. Comparisons with other councils can be illuminating – for example in managing sickness absence. If all councils matched the best performers, there would be an equivalent gain of 200 teachers and 700 other council staff across the country.

Councils will need to ensure they have people with the necessary knowledge and skills to manage the changes that lie ahead, particularly in options appraisal, programme management, commissioning, finance and scrutiny.

And in a climate of reducing resources the importance of scrutiny has never been greater. Scrutiny arrangements must add demonstrable value in monitoring the planning, execution and follow-up of key decisions. The public needs to have confidence that their council’s arrangements are transparent, independent and effective. If they are not, the public interest is not being met.

The Commission hopes this report will be a helpful tool for councillors and officers, and as always, we welcome feedback

About the author

AuditScotland_P_001Douglas Sinclair is chair of the Accounts Commission for a term of office until 30 November 2017. He has held the position of Chief Executive in district, regional and unitary councils in Scotland, as well as being former Chief Executive of COSLA.

Supporting administrative justice in Scotland’s councils

For the past year, I’ve been helping the Scottish Tribunals and Administrative Justice Advisory Committee (STAJAC) produce a report looking at administrative justice in councils.

What’s that about, you may ask? It might sound a bit like a plot from Yes Minister (no, that was the Department of Administrative Affairs) but in fact, it’s more important (and complex) than you might think. It’s about the part of the justice system concerned with decision-making by public bodies that affect your rights and interests.

In Scotland, councils make most administrative justice decisions, examples include school placement requests, planning permission, parking and bus lane enforcement and over 40 kinds of licencing from alcohol and gambling to pedicabs and rickshaws.

For the complete unexpurgated list, you can view the newly launched report Making decisions fairly – Developing excellence in administrative justice in Scottish councils. The project looked at a representative selection of local authority decision-making areas to model the user journey through these administrative justice processes. It provides a whole system view of the decision making areas, including the appeal or review processes and attaches indicative costs to each part of the process.

The report – one of two launched this week by STAJAC to showcase the administrative justice landscape in Scotland – also aims to raise awareness of the importance of sound and transparent administrative justice decision making, in particular by local authorities.

Having effective decision-making, complaints, and appeals processes is also important for councils’ reputations and can help them improve services and, most importantly, people’s experience of those services. We also found that empowering frontline staff to vary decisions or find alternative solutions for service users could reduce appeals and complaints and achieve moderate savings.

Administrative justice is also a crucially important for how we in Audit Scotland carry out our work, as looking at services from the viewpoint of the user provides us with a fresh and valuable perspective. For example, a service user trying to negotiate through paperwork and online forms to gain access to services or get permissions and licences will have had a unique experience of the decision making processes within a council.

As part of our forthcoming audit on social work services in Scotland, we’ll be looking at the views of service users and carers on the support they receive from councils and others.

About the author

MM6A5530John Lincoln is an audit manager within Audit Scotland’s Performance Audit and Best Value team. His next project will be leading on an audit of social work services in Scotland, which is expected to report in Summer 2016.

Auditing Best Value in Falkirk Council

AS_Twitter_Exhibit_COVERI was part of the team which carried out the audit of Best Value in Falkirk Council on behalf of the  Accounts Commission, the public spending watchdog for local government.

Our extensive audit work included interviewing councillors and senior officers. We held focus groups with councillors so they all had an opportunity to contribute their views on what was happening. Staff were also invited to take part in a focus group to help us understand how certain issues  affected their work, and how services were being delivered to the people of Falkirk. Continue reading Auditing Best Value in Falkirk Council