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.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Council elections - keep it local

As the local government election short campaign gets under way – let’s keep it local.


Local government elections will be held for every seat in Scotland on Thursday 4 May. The first reminder is to make sure you are registered to vote. Changes to the system means that a lot of people have been missing from the register. If you haven’t received a polling card by now, you are probably not registered. It’s easy to do this online at https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote, but it has to be completed by 17 April.


The second reminder is that these are local elections. The councillor you elect will make important decisions about local services including schools, social care, roads, libraries and much more. While I am not naive enough to believe that national issues don’t impact on local elections, I get very irritated when leaflets arrive through the door with the local issues relegated to an afterthought. – I bin them.


UNISON Scotland has published its manifesto for the election. There are some general themes around fair funding and the importance of keeping services local, as well as more detailed ideas around individual services. We will be highlighting some of these, and the people who deliver them, during the campaign because we all tend to take these services for granted.


I take some comfort from a poll we commissioned from Survation this month that voters do care about local services. Public services are the top priority for voters (70%); and half of all voters chose the public sector as the best to deliver our public services, only 19% chose the private sector and 13% chose charities. This included Conservative voters with only 31% saying the private sector and 10% saying charities are the best place to deliver public services.

That’s a clear message to council candidates from all parties that people in Scotland want high quality services, delivered by public sector staff. That doesn’t preclude other service providers, but in-house staff should be the primary means of delivering public services that are accountable to the public.  

There was also support for keeping services local, with the council being the most trusted deliverer of local services. Voters also wanted more of their taxes spent locally. They also recognised that the cuts have had a serious impact on the quality of public services. Hardly surprising when nine out of ten jobs lost in Scotland’s public sector since the austerity cuts have gone from local government.

We will be providing some useful questions for candidates in the coming weeks. So if a candidate chaps on the door - start by asking them, not what they have been told to say by central office, but how they will be standing up for local services. Keep it local.

Friday, 31 March 2017

It's Public Services Stupid

Public services are the top issue for the vast majority of Scottish voters.

We are publishing a full scale poll, undertaken by Survation for UNISON Scotland, that asked voters to tell us their priorities for the local government elections. Public services were the top priority followed by the economy and job security.

Public services come first say Scottish voters

The results were clear over 70% of those who took part place public services as one of the three most important issues facing them and their families ahead of the upcoming election. The economy was second chosen by just over fifty percent (51%) of respondents and job security and availability came in third with 40%. There was very little variation when results were broken down by party affiliation with public services coming highest among all party voters. Jobs came second for SNP voters while the economy was second for Conservative voters equal numbers of Labour voters picked jobs and the economy.

Voters were also clear about whom they believe delivers the best quality services. Half of all voters chose public sector organisations with only 19% supporting the private sector and even fewer (13%) choosing charities. Even amongst Conservative voters only 31% picked the private sector and 10% charities. UNISON hopes that candidates from all parties are now clear that the people of Scotland want high quality publically delivered services.

Keeping it local for a better Scotland

Trust and accountability are important issues in a democracy. The polling figures indicate that people trust publically delivered services and believe them to be more accountable than private of charitable delivery: 71% of respondents believed public sector organisations are accountable for the services they deliver while for charities and the private sector the scores were 52% and 44%. Our survey reveals low levels of trust towards politicians and the media. Only 27% of respondents stated that they trust Holyrood politicians as sources of information about public services and 42% stated that they distrusted them. Only 20% trust the media with 47% stating that they distrust the media. Trade unions remain a relatively trusted source of information with 32% only topped by “friends and family” and academics. Friends and family are by far the most trusted source of information on public services (72%), academics achieved 56%. Academics were only distrusted by 11% of respondents.

Fairer funding for a better Scotland

Budget cuts are having a serious impact on local services: only 6% of respondents believed that services have improved in recent years and a further 30% that they had stayed the same while 59% felt they had declined. When asked where they blame lay 26% blamed local councils, 35% the government and 36% blamed both. SNP voters were the least likely to blame council alone but even then it was still 23%, with 36% of Conservative voters blaming the council and 30% of Labour voters. Nearly half of respondents want more of their taxes to be spent in their local areas and councils were the body most trusted to deliver local services with 41% picking the council and only 8% the government and 12% private companies. The poll summary is available here and tables here.

The poll clearly shows that people value public services, that they want them delivered in the public sector and that they want them delivered local by their council. UNISON agrees.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

EU nationals and the services they deliver

As the UK government triggers our exit from the European Union, a key initial focus for UNISON is the impact on members who are EU nationals and the public services that rely on them.

One of the many difficulties in dealing with this issue is the paucity of accurate data on the number of EU nationals working in Scotland. The data that exists doesn’t capture all of those working in Scotland or are based on statistically small samples for estimates.  As an NIESR report last year highlighted, the numbers are likely to be significantly larger than the official statistics.

The Scottish Government has just published a paper based on the Annual Population Survey. It found that in 2015 there were around 181,000 non-UK EU nationals living in Scotland representing 3.4% of the total population. This is lower than for the UK as a whole, where non- UK EU nationals represent 4.9% of the total UK population. 30% of these are under 16. 47% of all EU nationals in Scotland are Polish nationals.

Just over half live in three city areas: Edinburgh (21.8%), Glasgow (17.6%) and Aberdeen (12.7%). This compares to just a quarter of the total population of Scotland living in these cities.

This means 115,000 EU nationals are in employment (75.9%). 28.6% of these work in ‘distribution, hotels and restaurants’ followed by 19,600 (17.1%) in ‘public admin, education and health’ - services within UNISON’s sphere of influence.

Over one-third have degree level qualifications or higher. However, they are significantly less likely to be working in high or medium skilled jobs (56%), commensurate with their qualifications, than the Scottish workforce as a whole (79%). The median gross hourly earnings for EU national working full-time in Scotland in 2015 was £9.00 compared to £12.20 for full-time UK nationals. EU nationals have had consistently lower hourly earnings than UK nationals, on average around £3.15 less than UK nationals since 2007.

The next stage is to ensure that our members and the services they deliver are protected. 

The Cavendish Coalition brings together 34 health and social care organisations working across the UK (including UNISON) to make certain that the health and social care system is able to retain and continue attracting the staff it needs – domestically, from Europe and globally, following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. They have written to the UK government and the First Minister of Scotland, setting out three priorities:

  1. Permanent leave to remain for EEA nationals in the health and social care sector: To provide certainty for individuals and employers providing services to our people and communities, we are calling on the Government to quickly confirm the right to permanent residence of all people from the EEA working in social care and health care across the UK. We have also highlighted the need for a streamlined and inexpensive process for claiming leave to remain which does not create additional administrative burden on employers.
  2. Sufficient transitional arrangements for EEA nationals leave to remain. In order to ensure a stable pipeline of staff, we are urging any ‘cut-off’ date at which EEA nationals resident in the UK would be eligible to apply for permanent leave to remain to be late as practicable. For the stability of workforce supply, there should also be sufficient advance notice of any ‘cut off’ date to enable health and social care employers and candidates to make preparations and informed choices. 
  3. An immigration system which supports health and social care provision: Efforts to increase domestic workforce supply are vitally important and the Cavendish Coalition is committed to increasing local opportunities for UK citizens to train and work in the health and social care sectors. Increasing domestic supply will, however, take time. Both during the negotiating period and in the years after the UK leaves the EU, providing high quality and sustainable health and social care services will depend on workers from within and outside the EEA.

UNISON Scotland has made similar points in submissions to the Scottish Government and to parliamentary inquiries. Scotland’s care system needs EU and non-EU nationals to deliver a growing demand for health and care services.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Predictable State Pension Review lacks imagination

As the UK government probably planned when they appointed a safe, if boring, pair of hands in John Cridland, his review of the State Pension Age (SPA) lacks imagination.

He recommends:
• State Pension age should rise to age 68 over a two year period starting in 2037 and
ending in 2039;
• State Pension age should not increase more than one year in any ten year period,
assuming that there are no exceptional changes to the data.

In addition, he recommends ending the triple lock on pension increases. Under his recommended timetable, State Pension spending would be 6.7% of GDP in 2066/67, which is a reduction of 0.3% compared to the principal OBR projection. If the triple lock is withdrawn, spending will be further reduced to 5.9% of GDP by 2066/67.

To address the huge disparities in life expectancy, he recommends some modest changes to the benefit system, support for carers and the joy of a mid-life MOT.

The review does recognise that public sector pension schemes now follow the SPA. This is a big issue for a range of public sector workers who undertake physically or mentally demanding jobs. He makes no recommendations on this point but reminds HM Treasury that they agreed to review the link between State Pension age and public sector pension schemes, after the Government has completed each State Pension Age Review. Don't hold your breath on this one!

For many people, certainly those on higher incomes in less demanding jobs, this increase in the SPA is probably manageable. Although it does assume that life expectancy will continue to rise exponentially. However, it is already the case that fewer than half of people are in work by the time they reach state pension age. Raising the SPA to 68 or 70 is likely to increase this proportion.

His recommendations are based on average life expectancy, a statistic that conceals huge inequalities, based on location, health, working and living environments. This increase in the SPA will affect poorer and less able bodied people disproportionately. While it also affects Scotland with our lower life expectancy, I accept that the case for a lower Scottish SPA is weak. The differences in life expectancy within Scotland are far greater than those with the rest of the UK.

With more imagination, he could have given more serious consideration to a flexible retirement age that takes into account the arduousness of work and the length of a persons working life. It would be complex to manage, but society needs people to do tough jobs that contribute to reduced life expectancy. These workers are in effect subsidising the better off, healthier individuals who will live longer and take more than their fair share out of the total state pension pot.

Cridland argues that a single state pension age is, “simple and clear and provides a trigger for pension planning”. It may be simple, but real people's lives are complex. The SPA, as the current data shows, is not the same as the actual retirement age.

This report recommends increasing the SPA using the standard broad brush approach. It will leave many reliant on the reducing social security system and insecure part-time work. 

A change to retirement at 70, even if a gradual process, needs extensive support for mid and later life career changes, personal development throughout their working life and decent levels of income support. It also needs a more imaginative approach to retirement age. Sadly, imagination is the element most lacking in this report.

The full review report can be downloaded here https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/state-pension-age-independent-review-final-report

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!

Friday, 27 January 2017

Council budget cuts - cutting through the spin

This year’s local government budget allocation has been subjected to even more political spin than usual. So here is my attempt at a bit of clarity.

The war of words in the Scottish Parliament chamber is about the Scottish Government’s draft budget and how much they have allocated to local government. That is a very important part of any council’s finances, but it isn’t the whole picture. 

Lets start with the Scottish Government’s budget allocation to local government. The 2017-18 draft budget will cut the local government budget by £327m.  

The detail of that is set out in parliament’s independent information service report and this chart shows very graphically how badly local government is hit. 

COSLA also fairly put local government funding into context when they say:

”The financial facts are straightforward on this matter:
  • In 2017/18 the revenue settlement for Local Government fell by 3.6% (£349m)
  • In 2017/18 Local Government’s share of the Scottish budget fell from 30.6% to 29.7%
  • LG Revenue Funding as a share of SG funding has decreased by 3.7% (£1bn) between 2010/11 and 2017/18 

Make no mistake the Scottish Government has a political choice here and with additional cash of £418m for next year there was no need for such a drastic cut to Local Government.”

The Scottish government responds to attacks about cuts to local government budgets by listing funding for their key policy initiatives for example:
  • £120m for pupil equality scheme 
  • £140m for energy efficiency 
  • £47m to mitigate the bedroom tax 
  • £470m for capital funding for housing 
  • £107m social care funding 
Worthy though this spending is, it has little impact on the £327m budget cut. This is because this money is ring-fenced – it’s to pay for new initiatives and so can’t be used to plug the gap caused by the budget cut. The pupil equality scheme will go straight to schools; the social care funding is to pay for the living wage in social care, much of which is provided by the third and private sectors. Capital funding doesn’t pay for day-to-day services and so on. 

The one additional source of revenue that the Scottish Government can fairly refer to (although not include in their budget) is the £111m extra revenue generated by changing the council tax bands. In addition, any council that decides to increase the council tax (capped at 3%) will also generate real income (up to £70m nationally) that will mitigate the budget cut. 

I think councils should use these powers to mitigate austerity. I understand the argument that the Scottish Government is not increasing its basic rate of income tax, but expects councils to increase the basic rate of council tax. However, as my old gran used to say, ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ – councils should not be the local  ‘administrators of austerity’.

Even this additional council tax funding will vary council by council, depending on their housing mix. For some authorities the number of households paying more tax will outweigh those paying less through the changes to the council tax reduction scheme. In other councils with a higher proportion of low-income families and fewer expensive homes, the picture will be more challenging. 

When UNISON branches sit down with their council finance directors they will find the reality of the local budget bears little relationship to the claims made in parliament. 

The council budget starts with their allocation (in itself controversial) of the Scottish Government cuts, mitigated by the extra council tax revenue and other modest income sources. Then they will be faced with what are described as ‘unavoidable commitments’. This year the biggest of these is likely to be the Apprenticeships Levy and it is as yet unclear how much of that money, if any, will come back to local authorities to support their apprenticeship schemes. In fairness, some of the ring-fenced grants will obviate some of what would have been unavoidable commitments, like the social care living wage costs. The result of this calculation will be budget deficit.

In conclusion, the finance minister’s spin simply doesn’t match the budget reality on the ground, but opposition parties also have to accept that there is some mitigation. However, the net result will be a big cut in the real budget for every local authority, although the scale will vary between councils. This will result in service cuts and even more job losses. 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Fight Poverty Not Just The Consequences

Children in less well of families have worse health than their better-off peers. Not exactly news. The health of children in Scotland “among the worst in Europe” again not a surprise. These headlines are becoming all too familiar. What we see less of is action.

This week’s headlines follow a report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health: The State of Child Health.

These reports come out with depressing regularity and despite their recommendations and fine words from politicians the facts remain the same.

I have no issue with the report’s recommendations per se:
improve breastfeeding rates with more workers to support mothers
reduce childhood obesity by ensuring unhealthy food isn't available near schools, colleges and leisure centres
do more research
extend smoking bans to school playgrounds

All healthcare professionals to discuss being overweight with patients every time they see them maybe a bit challenging and anyway I’m not sure anyone who is overweight is unaware of it. Imagine someone coming into the health centre with severe depression having to deal with “ I know you are depressed but let’s talk about your weight” no matter how well its put. I think health staff should make judgements about how to support people to lose weight on a case-by-case meeting-by-meeting basis. But again I’m not a health worker so what do I know?

Action to lift people out of the poverty that is actually causing their problems would be cheaper and more effective in the long (and short) term. For example a £5 a week increase in child benefit as called for by CPAG

It isn't wrong of the Royal College to focus on health services it is their area of expertise after all but a more holistic approach and focus on improving wider public services would make a massive difference. Breastfeeding on or waiting for a bus is much more challenging than if you own a car. It’s more than lack of info about the benefits: there are real barriers.

Improving housing, transport, environmental services, parks sports and leisure centres alongside education and job creation would make substantial leaps in the quality of the physical and mental health of families and children.

How many more times will we see these reports with no action on poverty?