Welcome to the Public Works blog.

Public Works is UNISON Scotland's campaign for jobs, services, fair taxation and the Living Wage. This blog will provide news and analysis on the delivery of public services in Scotland. We welcome comments and if you would like to contribute to this blog, please contact Dave Watson d.watson@unison.co.uk. For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Let's splash the Scottish Plan for Action on Safety and Health


The UK has one of the best safety records in the world, but far too many people are injured and die at work, and much more needs to be done about ill health at work.

I was at the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) engagement event in Glasgow today, including the launch of the Scottish Plan for Action on Safety and Health (SPLASH). The aim is to link up the HSE plans with those of the Fair Work Convention and other partners. This in itself is progress, as historically HSE has had a poor focus on the different approaches in Scotland. It is the devolved NHS Scotland that picks up the cost of failure.

Two and half million days are lost because of ill health caused by work in Scotland, which costs the Scottish economy around £600m, to which we can add £500m due to injury. Those who argue that health and safety regulation is just a burden, should at least focus on the human and financial cost of inaction.


The public health focus on health inequalities is also relevant to improving health at work, something less well understood in a health and safety context. NHS Scotland research shows that some occupations and industries are associated with consistently better health outcomes; others the opposite, including caring, process and customer service occupations of particular interest to UNISON Scotland. Work is being done on a single gateway to access services, as well as links to the devolved social security service.

The GB HSE health and work strategy also recognises this link. HSE focusing on preventing work-related ill health, public health focusing on improving general health of the working population, and DWP extending employment health benefits to those currently not working. Of course there are more than a few sceptics regarding the UK government's commitment to all three, particularly the DWP!

Traditional HSE strategies have focused on communications through employers. With around a million workers in the gig economy, sector 'employers' have little commitment to their workforce and therefore new approaches are needed. Technological change is also shaping the future world of work including quantum computing, autonomous vehicles and synthetic technologies - to which I would add the people impact of excessive monitoring and control. There is a risk that we are turning people into robots, before viable automation even arrives.

The ageing workplace (it's doubled in recent years) also needs greater attention - focusing on health as well as the more obvious safety issues. Tomorrow's world may be unrecognisable from that of today - although I would argue that we should be wary of extravagant futurologist claims, based on historical experience.

A key focus is on stress at work, tackling the stigma as well as the causes. It is the biggest cause of ill health and the Scottish Government is about to publish a new 10 year mental health strategy.

The Scottish plan is based on the work of the Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland (PHASS). It is seen as an opportunity for all those in the Scottish health and safety system to work together to improve workplace health and safety. There is a useful interactive map on the website that helps link up this network. It is a living plan that will evolve over time based on the latest evidence and practical experience, 

Initially there will be twelve action plans. The plans that will be of greatest interest to UNISON members include plans on stress, social care, driving and workforce engagement. In particular, we have huge safety challenges in social care, from lone working to violence.

There is a real willingness to join up health and safety in Scotland across devolved and reserved issues. Obviously there will some tensions with this, but as usual people can help break through institutional and political barriers. The real test is turning the strategic intention into practical action. Many of the organisations involved have big funding challenges, but hopefully the sum of the total will help bridge some of that gap.



Thursday, 16 March 2017

Tough Times in Local Government

I love the language used in Audit Scotland reports: careful, understated accountant speak, a marked contrast to the often heated excitement of blogs and social media. This report is no exception: “performance and challenges” doesn’t sound scary but if you rely on local services, if your children are in school or if you work there the information in the report is very scary indeed.
Audit Scotland highlight a number of different “challenges:”

New policies and legislation mean big changes in the way things have to be done and a growing number of over 75s is driving demand for care services. All this must be achieved not with new funding to meet demand, to smooth transition but a cut of over 9% revenue funding since 2011.


Don’t worry there are plenty of people there to share the workload....


Sorry my mistake a lot less people...

To be fair some of these people work in ALEOs but we won’t know how many until Audit Scotland report back later in the year. Over a decade of ALEOs with no real national scrutiny.

But here’s a final image feel free to share it when people try to tell you there haven’t been cuts in local government budgets.

The full Audit Scotland report is available here



Tory health policy with a difference

When a new Scottish Conservative health policy lands on my desk, I flick through it expecting to see the usual marketisation, ignoring health inequalities and blaming the poor for their unhealthy lifestyles.

 

However, this new paper, ‘Healthy Lifestyle Strategy’ from Brian Whittle MSP is somewhat different. It aims to set out a long term alternative strategy for health, welling being and sport.


So, why is it different?

 

For starters, the first chapter is entitled ‘Health inequality in Scotland’, and describes the difference in health inequality across Scotland and between income groups. Admittedly there is more emphasis on geography than income inequality, but this is real progress. I can remember the last Tory Chair of Greater Glasgow Health Board denying any link between inequality and health – well after the Black report had been published!

 

The next chapter describes two pillars of a healthy lifestyle, activity and nutrition. These are of course important and the paper argues for investment in early intervention - preventative spending as we would call it. It also recognises the importance of using procurement as lever to achieve change. Again something UNISON has long argued for.

 

As you might expect from a former athlete, Brian Whittle argues that activity should be at the core of health and education. He is right, although the emphasis should be on activity, not just sport. The health benefits are undeniable, but what’s different about this policy is that it recognises at least some of the barriers to participation – not just blaming the poor. It also recognises the importance of early years childcare and learning to achieving change and the need to invest in these services. Most policies in this field focus solely on teachers, but this policy also recognises the role of early years practitioners, which is very welcome.

 

Somewhat surprisingly the paper highlights the difference in participation opportunities between state and private education, and even highlights the fact that a third of the British Olympic Team was made up from 7% of the population that was privately educated. It also quotes extensively from the CPAG Scotland report on the hidden costs that hamper participation in extra-curricular activity. It is similarly opposed to some council charges, which have been caused by the council tax freeze.

 

It is of course true that many school facilities are closed out of school hours. However, some recognition that this is often caused by PFI contracts would have been welcome. UNISON Scotland’s ‘Combating Austerity’ toolkit shows how we could tackle this.

 

The chapter of the importance of good nutrition emphasises the role of procurement in ensuring food in our schools and hospitals is of high quality and locally sourced. Almost word for word from UNISON Scotland’s Food for Good Charter - even quoting the groundbreaking work of our members in East Ayrshire Council. No ‘nanny state’ lectures here, just maybe as Stephen Jardine argues in the Scotsman – the tide has turned in this debate.

 

The paper concludes with a long series of recommendations. These are very practical ideas, almost all of which we would have very little problem with. Several are not the sort of policy proposals you would expect to find in a Conservative policy paper.

 

It would be a fair criticism to say that the paper would have benefited from greater context on the impact of inequality on health and measures to address this including the importance of progressive taxation to create a more equal society. Practical programmes that ignore this reality are going to struggle.

 

So, this isn’t the ‘Spirit Level’ recognition that more equal societies are also healthier societies, but that was probably a step too far! However, it is a real step forward in Conservative thinking on this issue and should be welcomed for that.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

UK Budget 2017 - still no coherent economic plan

The UK Budget does little for hard pressed households in the short-term, and even less for the long-term health of the economy.

Let’s look at the issues that matter to UNISON members.

Austerity is supposed to be driven by the budget deficit, so some good news that deficit is reducing this year. However, the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that it will go back up next year, instead of shrinking as planned. There is a modest short-term giveaway of around £1.7 billion in 2017-18, dominated by additional funding for local authorities in England to deliver adult social care. This is followed by a modest medium-term takeaway averaging around £750 million a year from 2019-20 onwards. So this is probably the best year we can expect for public spending for a while.

The Barnett consequential for Scotland of all this adds up to £350m. Very welcome relief, although still only a dent in the austerity cuts. It’s a bit like having your pocket picked and the thief returns part of his ill gotten gains.

Looking ahead, the OBR expects real GDP growth to moderate during the first half of 2017, as rising inflation squeezes household budgets and real consumer spending. The relatively strong start to the year implies 2.0 per cent growth in real GDP in 2017 as a whole (still very modest by historical standards), up from 1.4 per cent in November, with small downward revisions thereafter. Most experts think even these forecasts will be optimistic against most Brexit scenarios.

As always the devil is in the detail. For example, the OBR notes the decision to reduce the personal injury discount rate, which will substantially increase the size of one-off settlement payments. The Government has set aside an extra £1.2 billion a year to meet the expected costs to the public sector, notably to the NHS. Health Boards in Scotland take note!

Next, members will be concerned about wages. The OBR has made a downward revision to earnings growth of 0.1 percentage points over the forecast period, with the growth rate rising progressively from 2.6 per cent this year to 3.6 per cent in 2021. Wages are still below 2008 levels in real terms. Even this is a fantasy for public sector workers because of the UK and Scottish government’s 1% pay policy.



The OBR believes that additional employer costs such as the apprenticeship levy and pension auto-enrolment will be borne by the workforce through lower wages. Even though the latest data indicate that corporate profits have risen strongly in recent quarters. Non-oil corporate profits are estimated to have increased by just under 11 per cent in the year to the third quarter of 2016.

The headlines in the budget relate to the less favourable tax treatment of the self-employed. In fairness, there is some justification for these changes and it might make bogus self-employment marginally less attractive. However, there is no justification for the cuts in Corporation Tax, given the growth in corporate profits. Anyone who still believes in the Laffer curve should look at this chart.


So what does this mean for household incomes? According to the latest National Accounts, the headline saving ratio fell to 5.6 per cent in the third quarter of 2016 as consumer spending growth outpaced household disposable income growth. In effect the Chancellors increased revenues are being paid for out of squeezed household incomes and falling savings. Not a basis for a long term economic plan. This chart makes the point graphically.



Overall, while there is some short term public spending relief, the economy is currently being sustained by debt-driven consumption and a low exchange rate, and the Chancellor has done little to address the long-term challenges.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Apprenticeship Levy - Keeping it local

With an ageing public sector workforce, we should be encouraging apprenticeships by passing the funding from the Apprenticeship Levy onto those public service employers who deliver quality apprenticeships.

 

This is Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2017, which focuses on the benefits apprenticeships bring to businesses, individuals and the Scottish economy - an opportunity to encourage more employers to offer quality apprenticeships. Events and activities involving employers, apprentices, colleges, local authorities and training providers are taking place across the country to celebrate the success of apprenticeships.



 

The UK wide Apprenticeship Levy is to be implemented from April 2017 and collected by the HMRC from large employers. Employers in England, including public sector bodies, will be able to directly access funding. However, in Scotland the money goes into the Scottish Government's budget - around £230m per annum.

 

Public sector employers in Scotland are important providers of quality apprenticeships. In a recent UNISON Scotland survey 81 per cent of apprentices described their training as excellent or good, even though almost half (46%) felt there should be a greater degree of off-the-job training. That is not to say there are not issues that need to be addressed. More than one in three (35%) rated their chances of achieving a job upon completion of their course as ‘don’t know’ or ‘unlikely’. Gender segregation also remains a huge issue. While the percentage of women employed in apprenticeships varied across councils, a strong pattern exists of women taking up apprenticeships in administration or care, while being almost completely absent from ‘craft’ apprenticeships.

 

Councils spend at least £25m on providing hundreds of valuable opportunities for young people such as modern apprenticeships, craft apprenticeships, graduate trainees, probationer teachers, formal work experience as employers that all contribute to the Developing Scotlands Young Workforce (DYW) Programme, jointly led by the Scottish Government and local government as partners.  This major programme aims to reduce youth unemployment by 40 per cent by 2021.

 

However, in Scotland the apprenticeship levy resource is not being passed on to these providers. COSLA has estimated that, based on last years pay bill for councils, the Apprenticeship Levy could potentially cost local authorities £24m as employers. That could rise to almost £50m across the public sector in Scotland.

 

Originally, local government understood that it would have its Levy funding returned in full in the next financial year by the Scottish Government.  Then councils were told that they were not to receive any of their own funding back from the Scottish Government. This decision undermines the DYW Programme and efforts to reduce youth unemployment in Scotland by putting in danger the future of valuable local initiatives provided by councils and other public service employers for young people. 

 

The bottom line is that apprentice recruitment is not happening at a sufficient rate to either: alter the ageing demographic of the workforce in public services; or replace the numbers leaving the workforce through voluntary redundancy or early retirement.

 

By centralising funding, the Scottish Government is discouraging public service employers from taking on apprentices. It is time to think again and return this funding to those local employers who want to develop quality apprenticeship programmes.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Food for Good is the way to better meals

Meals are delivered in our schools and hospitals very cheaply, but often at the expense of local sourcing and quality. UNISON Scotland's Food for Good Charter points to a better way.

BBC Scotland has been running a series of stories about the cost of food in public sector meal delivery. Using FoI requests they headlined 94p for a meal in NHS Grampian. The figures also found that some hospitals were sourcing 50% of their food from abroad. Waste levels were generally below 10%.

The most recent Scottish Care Experience Survey said: "Food is an area where a substantial percentage of people reported a negative experience, however they were more positive about the drinks they had received." It said 18% were not happy with the food they had received and 7% were not happy with the drinks.

The BBC also investigated school meals. They found that school children are eating chicken produced 6,000 miles away in Thailand. Scottish government ministers have repeatedly called for supermarkets and shops to buy local, while Scottish councils are spending millions importing food which could be sourced in Scotland. Glasgow alone spends £1.3m a year on imports.


Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said: "I think we are doing quite well but we could do better. Almost half of the £150m spent on procuring food in the public sector is sourced locally. 48% is Scottish food and the amount sourced in Scotland had increased by 41% over the past seven years since Recipe for Success."

So, probably the best we can say is that we are doing better, but still have some way to go.

In 2013 UNISON Scotland did a similar survey to the BBC and updated our Food for Good CharterIt sets out key ways in which food in schools and hospitals, nurseries, care homes, prisons and other public services should be fresh, local, healthy and sustainable, taking account of local and global social justice factors.



We also asked the staff who make the meals what they thought. They said food quality has gone down due to cost-cutting and that pressures on staff have inevitable consequences. One member said: “Food budget is cut and we don’t provide a good enough portion and the quality of food has been downgraded for price.”

If we want to get serious about improving the quality of food served in our schools and hospitals, we have to invest in the kitchens, the food and the staff who make the meals.
  

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Why the robot workplace damages workers and their organisations

Obsessive and unnecessary recording and reporting at work increases costs and places undue stress on staff. Coupled with new monitoring systems, workers are being turned into robots, before they are actually replaced by them.

Two different discussions with members, one private sector employer and another in an NDPB (quango), highlighted for me the waste that can develop when employers allow reporting systems to spiral out of control. 

The story was similar in both organisations. Workers told me that they spend a quarter and a third of their time providing reports on what they are doing, in different formats, to different parts of the management structure. The main departments responsible for generating these reporting demands have grown exponentially, while front line staff are under huge pressure, coping with increased demands on delivering the service. 


What particularly irritates staff in the NDPB, is that they take the same data and have to input it into the computer system and then put parts of the same data into two different spreadsheets. There is no smart systems working, or any indication that management have any insight into the waste this approach causes.

Looking at the annual reports of both organisations, I can see no qualitative evidence that all this reporting has had any noticeable impact on their public reporting. It is a regular feature of Audit Scotland reports that there is insufficient data to judge this and that. In the public sector this is sometimes used as an excuse for expanding data collection. It's a point we often make in response to Audit Scotland reports and something they ought to reflect on.

Taking this one step further, we have John Harris in the Guardian writing about a novel and new film on the fictional (for now) Circle Corporation, whose leaders want privacy and autonomy to count for almost nothing. Workers are under constant monitoring and a system of endless appraisal by their peers, who feed into a system called Participation Rank – or PartiRank, for short.

The details of their online and offline lives are judged according to “an algorithim-generated number” that measures their activity. “It’s just for fun,” a company high heidyin tells the story’s principal character. But, of course, it isn’t, it's just one more example of the passive-aggressive ways of Silicon Valley that appears to be spreading to Scotland.

Both my examples involve administrative jobs. However, similar intrusive work monitoring takes place in the huge warehouses run by online retail giants, and driver deliveries. Sports Direct and Amazon are well known examples, and there was a story last week that one in ten workers in another retail warehouse had been so ill that they had to be sent to A&E.

I have long been irritated at the use of the phrase 'human capital'. It's as if HR departments feel they need some numbers to put them on a par with the finance department. Even I had a phone call the other day from a company wondering why I hadn't taken up their invitation to 'get on board' with the 'science' of HR metrics. After a five minute lecture from me about the difference between people and robots, they probably regretted the call! I see one company is trying to sell robots to undertake care tasks. I am sure our long suffering elderly care service users, just can't wait for this quality interaction!

The latest buzz highlighted by Harris is 'people analytics'. Some systems are straightforwardly intrusive: Worksnaps, takes repeated screenshots of workers’ computers, count their mouse-clicks and take webcam images. BetterWorks uses a Facebook-like application that depends on employees publicly posting their supposed workplace goals, and regularly issuing “cheers” and “nudges” to their colleagues. “In the office of the future,” says the chief executive of the company responsible, “you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it". I can't wait!

There are now tracking apps for phones that can log the whereabouts of staff 24 hours a day. A US-based company called Humanyze (really!) is working with British businesses including a high street bank and the consulting firm Deloitte, as well as parts of the NHS. They say: “Humanyze’s badge can track physical activities in real time, capture ‘nonlinguistic social signals such as interest and excitement’ without recording actual words, locate wearers and their proximity to other wearers, and communicate with other electronic devices.”

Harris concludes: "Judging by the way the idea is sold, the people responsible, for reasons that speak volumes about the tech world’s endless naivety, they see it as a kind of super-efficient utopia. Anyone with a grasp of what makes us human should surely recognise it for what it is: Stasi capitalism, apparently furthering its dominance at a terrifying speed, with only the faintest murmurs of protest."

There is another way for those employers who recognise that their workforce consists of diverse talented individuals who want to do a good job. A study by the ILM has found that more than half (53%) of employees would consider leaving their job if the structure and culture of their organisation didn't change. According to the research, lack of employee empowerment is the root cause of much dissatisfaction in the workplace.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of staff surveyed said they wanted more freedom in their roles, but a third (34%) said their work was overly regulated, and that they were forced to work within overly controlled structures. 64% of staff surveyed said they struggled to do 'fit in' with their organisation. Despite two-thirds (66%) of employees wanting to have a greater say in their everyday working lives, just 24% said they felt their line managers fostered collaboration.

John Yates, group director at ILM, said overly authoritarian workplaces should be “a thing of the past, people today want to work for flexible, fun and friendly organisations. Organisations need to be flexible, allowing employees to pursue career ambitions and manage conflicting home life pressures as much as possible, and encourage creativity – injecting passion and new ideas into the workplace.”


I can think of a growing number of organisations that need to recognise this and change their systems, behaviours and culture - urgently!