Over the last few years, the debate about Scotland's
councils seems to have focused heavily on the issue of how many of
them there are.
Under the current system, Scotland has 32 local authorities
providing services to around 5.3 million people. Compare that to
somewhere like Iceland, which has 74 councils and a population of
330,000, and you quickly realise that we're not the most
disparate country when it comes to local government. While few
would argue to design our current structure if you were starting
from scratch, an argument based on the number of councils per
capita inevitably oversimplifies a complex problem.
That's because looking at the number of councils is the
wrong place to start the discussion. While current structures may
be inhibiting them to some degree, it's more important to begin
with the outcomes that are needed and work back from there.
For too long, we've been tinkering round the edges of the
challenges faced by local government. While merging councils may
save money, fundamental reform is what we really require –
and citizens need to be at the heart of that agenda.
Contrary to that spirit, survey data from last year's
Deloitte State of the State report found that only 19% of
UK citizens believe the public sector actively listens to them. If
that tells us anything, it's that national and local government
should get a much greater understanding of what communities
The good news is that progress is already being made in that
direction – the Community Empowerment Act has set us on the
right path for service delivery. However, as our population's
demographics shift and public services continue to feel the strain,
it's time to rethink the relationship between citizens and the
A more open and honest dialogue with citizens is required about
the difficult decisions we will face in terms of prioritising
services. There is also a need for citizens to take more
responsibility in the future – even if that's a tough
message to get across. Both of these are crucial if we are to
continue to deliver quality services where they are most
The opportunities provided by digital services will be a core
part of that new link between both parties. It's a huge
opportunity area for local government, but it needs accelerated.
Insufficient investment and competing priorities are two of the
principal barriers to that change. Digital is about delivering in
different ways – you can't simply digitise existing
processes. And it's not a conversation within the domain
of the IT department, it needs to be a much wider discussion and
recognised as a real way of transforming service delivery.
Inseparable from the rise of digital is better use of data.
Scotland's local government should better connect, structure,
and analyse data to create better outcomes for the public.
Manchester is leading the way in the UK in that respect, shifting
from reactive to preventative services. There is a wealth of data
already available in Scotland, but its potential needs to be
Of course, that will require funding; something which is in
short supply after years of Council tax freezes and budget cuts.
But the financial sustainability of local authorities needs to be
considered on a longer-term horizon, rather than on a year-to-year
basis. There are a range of options available for councils, however
all of them require some tough decisions.
Leaders need to be brave and they need a workforce that is
motivated, adaptable, and empowered. Yet, that can only be achieved
if the right steps are taken: for example, linking staff
contributions to service user outcomes; adopting a team approach by
doing away with traditional boundaries; and looking wider than the
current structure with new organisational designs.
An important first step that could be taken now is to share
systems and infrastructure across local organisations. Such a move
would cut costs, create resilience and strengthen the collaborative
approach required for delivering better outcomes across the public
sector. It's time for leaders to rise above local politics and
work together to achieve this.
It's obvious that transformation is required. However, the
scope of the debate about how to change needs broadening. Instead
of looking at numbers, we need to talk about the needs of
communities and build upwards, ensuring they are engaged with,
rather than simply provided for. Mistakes will be made along the
way but we need to accept that and learn from them. With the
right appetite for risk and strong leadership, our local government
can thrive once again.
The government has been working to incorporate the changes required as a result of the OECD's work on BEPS Action 5: Harmful Tax Practices, which requires implementation of a Nexus approach to the Patent Box regime.
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