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Response to Edinburgh 2000

Response to EDINBURGH 2000

The City of Edinburgh Council has produced a consultation document "Edinburgh 2000", outlining a view of how the council should operate in the future. While there are some innovative ideas, UNISON is concerned that the main thrust is towards the so-called 'enabling' council model. This would mean fewer elected councillors, less open government and a drastic reduction in directly provided services. Accountability, responsiveness and quality of service would suffer.Rather than use the council's somewhat restrictive (and leading?) pro-forma response sheet, the UNISON branch has produced and circulated a more detailed point by point response, reproduced here in full:


A Response from UNISON City of Edinburgh
Local Government & Related Sectors Branch

1. Introduction

This response addresses specific issues in "Edinburgh 2000"as a supplement to the more detailed "Partnership to Save Edinburgh's Services" document produced by the branch in November 1997. That document was informed by the direction the City of Edinburgh Council had signalled throughout the previous year and relates very directly to the issues raised in "Edinburgh 2000".Our partnership document was the subject of wide consultation in the branch and the union at Scottish level and the principles were adopted by the Scottish Council of UNISON. The document was also circulated to local councillors and MPs, several of whom have forwarded comments.We believe that the principles in our document command wide support within our 11,000 members in the council, the voluntary sector and associated bodies,as well as more widely within in the union in Scotland to an extent where very similar proposals have been adopted by other branches and are being raised with other councils.

2. Overview

UNISON welcomes measures in Edinburgh 2000" aimed at creating a more efficient and responsive organisation. Our members who deliver services want this, the public wants this and the local economy needs this. We believe that the drive towards involving and consulting the public is an important element in this.However, we believe this needs to be real consultation starting with attempts to accurately portray the aims and limitations of council services, and attempts to promote the importance of democratic accountability and access to that accountability.However, UNISON believes that major elements of "Edinburgh 2000"suggest that the council is in danger of either deliberately or accidentally going down the road of the 'Enabling Council' model. It believes that this model of a smaller number of councillors and senior officials contracting out more and more responsibilities has a number of dangers:-

a) It is in conflict with the council's stated wish for local authorities to have an important strategic role in the community. It is UNISON's view that this model will reduce the council's ability to strategically plan, it will reduce the expertise and knowledge available to the council to ensure responsive and consistent services, and it will reduce its political influence.

b) The experience in some other areas is that it will compartmentalise services, resulting in them becoming less responsive, less integrated and eventually more expensive. Any efficiency gains from economy of scale will be lost.

c) It risks distancing operational decision making from the public. The public will be forced to deal more with managers whose primary aim is commercial rather than with the smaller number of councillors who they will still see as ultimately accountable, though less accessible or influential.

The examples are already there to see in the plans for the Leisure Trust and its shifting of the catering contract away from "Best Value" principles towards a cost (rather than quality) based service. Neither councillors, by their own admission, nor the public who will use this service and the staff who will provide it were consulted or had any influence over the decision. If such actions are repeated, and they are bound to be under an outsourcing or arms length approach, then all pretence of a "community governance" approach will be lost.

d) Resulting from the above, the council and councillors will be seen as more and more impotent (and therefore irrelevant) in having influence over the services they are accountable for. That will further reduce the key role of local authorities and severely affect any influential relationship with a Scottish Parliament.

3. Specific Comments
(Using "Edinburgh 2000" headings)
"Summary of Key Points"

The document asks whether the current structure can deliver acceptable outcomes in a context of progressive budget reductions. The question must be posed as to whether any structure or organisation can deliver effectively in such a climate, especially when the budgetary calculations often tend to be arbitrary.Clearly changes can be made to provide more responsive and flexible structures but they will always be hindered by a lack of clear consistency or security in local government funding arrangements.

"Best Value" also has to address structures. If council services are failing fair comparisons, the answer is not merely to hive them off. Surely the drive for quality and effectiveness dictates that internal structures, management etc are examined.Wage levels, in our view, are often a convenient scapegoat which avoids the difficult process of the council having to examine its own organisational and management structures. Best Value is discussed in more detail later in this response.

"Staffing Costs"

"Best Value" is again a major element. The branch welcomes initiatives to work in partnership to improve efficiency and effectiveness, however it has concerns about how comparisons will be defined and whether the 'hidden' cuts we refer to later in this response will result due to an uneven playing field.

Terms & Conditions:

The branch, and so far as we are led to believe, the council is committed to national bargaining and national conditions. There is already room for considerable flexibility within these frameworks. The document itself refers to the cost effective stabilising effect of such a system, which is also recognised in many parts of the private sector.The alternative is the chaos of councils bidding for skills and the people with those skills following the market at the expense of the longer term loyalty, commitment and resulting experience which benefits the council. This has been recognised by the council from losing so many experienced staff through voluntary severance.


"The City Strategy"
UNISON's "Partnership" document addresses the pivotal role of local authorities within the economy and the community and largely welcomes these aims in "Edinburgh 2000".

"The Commitment to 'Best Value'

If "Best Value" is applied properly, UNISON believes that most council services would be well able to stand up to any fair comparisons. However, the indications or that a level playing field may not always be there.

Misleading and hidden cuts and downgrading:

"Best Value" needs to start with an open council statement about the aims, quality and content of the service being compared. The danger, already evident, is that these issues are likely to change in the process of comparisons resulting in a 'hidden' reduction in the aim, quality or content of the service. This conflicts with the council's stated aim of openness and inclusion.As such the public is misled into believing that the 'in-house' service is inefficient compared to the 'commercial' comparison, when in fact all that has happened is a deliberate downgrading of the service.

Best Value is not, and was never conceived to be purely about cost. Quality and appropriateness of services are key elements and these can often be difficult to compare, using purely commercial or cost based formulae.

Examples: For example, in the area of residential care local authorities have led the field in increasing the ratio of qualified staff. This has been because of active decisions to provide a safe and high quality service to the most vulnerable. It has also been the result of directions or recommendations from inquiries.UNISON is not satisfied that current community care purchasing and future "Best Value" comparisons will always take this into account and ensure that other organisations used for comparison (or indeed currently used) have the same commitment to using qualified staff at similar ratios.

The public (and central Government) will not allow the council to abrogate its ultimate responsibility for outsourced services. The problems created by putting cost before appropriateness or quality of service will ultimately land at the council's door irrespective of who delivers the service.

Real Comparisons: Omissions are easy to make in trying to make real comparisons. The result can be that the more specialist or lucrative specialist tasks are contracted out while the council is left with the more expensive and unattractive ones. These tasks then become even more expensive without the ability to cross-subsidise financially or in staffing terms. The danger is that these tasks are often overlooked in assessing what the council actually does and this highlights even more the need to involve the staff directly providing services in any "Best Value" assessments.

Such omissions can also happen 'in house'. UNISON is not convinced that the transfer of litter picking duties from Recreation to Environmental & Consumer Services took fully into account how staff were used, what other tasks they undertook and the co-ordination required with other tasks. The council has it in its power to address this. It would not if it had outsourced or contracted out on this basis.

"Public Expectations"
The UNISON branch would take issue with the concept that services formally in the public sector have necessarily developed a more customer oriented perspective. We would contend that there are numerous examples to show that much of this is a developed image of being more customer oriented, rather than a reality.

The 'customers' are courted selectively on spending power and on a competitive basis. When an effective monopoly exists, the customer has a simple choice of take it or leave it. Councils need to be far more sophisticated than that.

Firstly they need to serve all of the community equally, not just those who can afford to pay. Secondly, they need to remain responsive even where they have a monopoly, for moral, democratic and political reasons, not merely for commercial reasons. They have to provide services responsive to culture, race, poverty, disability etc where there is no 'commercial' imperative. As such the lessons to be learned from other organisations are minimal. It is up to councils, staff and the public to deliver specific values for local government.The lesson of UNISON having to contact Liverpool to get information about a gas leak in Cockburn Street Edinburgh, as occurred recently, is not a lesson we would wish the council to draw from a private sector utility.

UNISON is disappointed that there is no specific mention of a structured partnership with council staff but recognises that the council has yet to respond to the branch's document.UNISON welcomes partnerships with the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector has a major contribution to make as outlined in our document. But it is to be stressed that this should be on a complementary level rather than as a substitution of 'in-house' services.

"The Right Organisational Structure"
UNISON recognises the need to develop structures to fit the task and to 'modernise' local government to make it more responsive. However, we have serious concerns about the philosophy behind some apparent proposals and the ultimate direction they will force the council into.These are addressed in "Section 1. Overview" above.


Local authorities assuming "wider responsibilities in the governance of their local areas" and the direct provision of local services are not incompatible.Although the document does not directly state that these are incompatible, the tone at times suggests this. UNISON believes that would be a simplistic approach creating an "either/or" situation to satisfy other agendas.UNISON supports principles of 'subsidiarity' in bringing services and decision making about those services down to the most practicable local level. It has concerns however that hybrid structures like those in Social Work (to an extent forced by a response to legislation) have resulted in decision making being subsumed to a district and HQ level. While budgets were not devolved to local office level before, many important operational decisions were, and many of the better offices had close community involvement which has never been rebuilt.


"Commitment to Staff"
UNISON welcomes much of this section as a positive approach which addresses many of the issues in our own document.It believes that success will depend in more involvement by staff and their union in creating a two way process in developing targets and standards. Standards set in isolation, or merely from the top down are not owned.More concerningly, even though they may be supported, they are often viewed cynically because they do not relate to staff's experience of the 'real world' of service delivery, lack of resources and lack of systems to ensure the standards.In such cases standards are merely seen as guidelines by which staff can be criticised rather than genuine attempts to improve service.

"Commitment to the Development of the City"
UNISON recognises the significant achievements of the administration and the previous Lothian and Edinburgh councils in developing the city and welcomes the commitment to the future. However, we do not believe that partnership with other agencies and direct provision (or control for that matter) are necessarily exclusive. We believe that suggestions that these may be incompatible in themselves relate to an 'enabling council' agenda.

"Resources - Getting More from Less"
The reality of current funding needs to be addressed, but the council cannot plan for the future without addressing the national perspective.There is an absence in the document of any firm position on better funding of councils. A strong argument needs to be made for better funding, for fairer funding formulae and a more consistent approach to allow local authorities to plan in the longer term and in a more efficient way, encompassing real Best Value .Part of that process needs to be a challenge to the hidden shift of financial commitments from central to local government, for example in devolved statutory duties or in DSS benefit regulations.

"Customer Focus"
We have commented above on the need for a real, rather than a commercial customer focus.The branch's document addresses the issue of integrated services and the need for cross-departmental co-operation, delivery of service etc and the need for cross departmental decisions to be made at the lowest operational level possible.Much cross departmental co-operation is hindered by inflexible budgetary arrangements and decision making processes. UNISON believes that much of the 'co-operation' perceived at councillor or chief official level is not experienced by staff at service delivery level.In addition, the whole CCT regime of one arm of the council monitoring the other and the waste of internal markets makes integration and co-ordination all the more difficult.

4. Conclusion

UNISON welcomes the consultation on Edinburgh 2000 and hopes that a debate can be entered into on this document and on its own "Partnership to Save Edinburgh's Services" document.It welcomes measures to improve the effectiveness, responsiveness and security of Edinburgh's services but believes that outsourcing, arms length provision and the drift towards an "enabling council" model will damage those services, make them less effective and responsive, more compartmentalised and ultimately more expensive.

It urges the council to enter into partnership dialogues with UNISON and the public to defend and improve services. This should involve considering emergency short term measures to protect service infrastructure so that a base will still exist to build on and develop new ideas and initiatives.Fundamental decisions about the long term future of services should not be made on the basis of immediate financial constraints.UNISON further believes the council should promote the value of its current services and the benefits of direct provision in terms of integration, responsiveness, accountability and consistency.



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