Outcomes and Measurements Project: Interview with Colin MacLean
This is an interview with Colin MacLean exploring a series of questions about outcomes and measurements aiming to get nuanced views from people as what started as a part of an action research project.
Below is a transcript of the above recording. Special thanks go to Colin MacLean giving the time to share his considerable experience in reflecting on these questions. I am grateful to his participation and giving of time to share his thoughts through this project.
Alex Dunedin: Okay right, okay well thank you very much for doing this interview. Could you tell me about your role and relationship to care work; a little bit about your your background
Colin MacLean: I currently have no role because I’m retired but, so I’ll talk about a previous role. As a civil servant I had responsibility for the team that led on policy in relation to social work and children’s issues. I did that for six years from 2002 to 2008 and after I retired in 2012/13 I spent a couple of years as a trustee for Bernardo’s and Streetwork which is an organization that works with homeless people in Edinburgh. So very much concerned with strategy and policy and not with experience of frontline delivery.
Alex Dunedin: So in what… strategy and policy, can you just flesh out…
Colin MacLean: Okay
Alex Dunedin:...a little bit about what that means in practice
Colin MacLean: Right, so for example in relation to child protection in the early 2000s there was a case in Edinburgh of a child who had died; there was a review carried out by an advocate who published the report which had lots of recommendations around child protection both in terms of how that particular case could have been dealt with and drawing more general lessons from looking at that case
So my responsibility was to work with the team and the minister with a sense with the wider care sector and other agencies to think through what might we do in response to that; then get a series of proposals drawn up which would have support from the sector and support from ministers and ultimately from parliament and that led to a number of different actions
So one was a clearer set of standards for child protection which were backed up by inspection so the child protection systems in each local area were subjected to inspection recommendations and then follow-up inspections to check the recommendations have been implemented. It led to a much clearer definition of the roles of child protection committees locally and of the chairs responsibilities – the relationship between these committees and these local agencies
It led to extensive discussions with particularly the health sector about information sharing which led to discussions between ministers and health sector representatives particularly doctors representatives around how and when and what circumstances they would share information that they might previously regarded as confidential
So share information about the needs of individual children with other agencies in the interest of protecting these children even where they would instinctively have some anxiety about sharing that information because it was to do with their patients and that led to significant changes and interestingly extensive debates among the health service where pediatricians tend to think information should be shared whereas other health professionals were more nervous because of the generic concern they had about sharing information but we ended up with a situation where I think everybody’s concerns were addressed
That people were not as concerned about the sharing of information as they thought they might be because they felt they were safeguards and others felt that information about vulnerable children was able to be shared when it needed to be
So in a sense the job was to work with everybody involved in the system to get a much better understanding of what the challenges were to think through what solutions might look like and to test them with the wider system and with ministers rather than seek to impose a system we had designed as civil servants because we weren’t the experts so I suppose our job was to facilitate the conversations that led to a better understanding of how to deal with child protection issues
Alex Dunedin: Can you talk a little bit about the successes you feel you’ve had
Colin MacLean: I’ll try and think of a different example. In the last couple of years I was asked to chair a commission looking at child care and we ended up producing a report which was quite widely welcomed and in broad terms accepted by most parts of the sector and so I suppose the success in that is around how did we get to that point
…and we spoke to very large numbers of people we encouraged parents and providers staff working for providers employers to talk to us and initially just to find out what they thought was important and then we published an interim report where we said this is what you are telling us is important; this is what you’re telling us appears not to be working very well and here are the areas where we think we might need to make changes
If we’re going to address your various concerns is that right – is that what you’ve been telling us and how do you respond to what other people have been telling us ? And so in the halfway point in the process we had a document where pretty much universally people said ‘yes that’s what we told you’ and ‘yes these are things that matter’ and ‘yes these are the areas where we need to think about what we do’.
We then worked with groups and we tried to mix groups up so you’ve got debates amongst the people around the table – around so what might a solution look like ? – and then produce a report where there were quite clear recommendations which explicitly had their origins in what people had told us was important and where we had been able to secure agreement among people
Where it was not successful was that by the time the report was published, ministers and political parties had started to say what they would do and what they would do were things that we agreed with but they were proposing not to do some of the other things we thought needed to be done – the more difficult things – and so we’re in a position where what the parties are proposing to do are a series of things that the commission would support but which we don’t think add up to something which will address all of the problems that need to be addressed…
…and the principal thing that has not been addressed is the disputes around funding where private and voluntary sector providers are saying – particularly private sector – we are not paid enough by the government for the hours that they are paying for and so we are having to charge parents a top-up for the hours that parents are paying for to cover the gap so we’re cross-subsidizing…
…and if the government is to increase the number of free hours then the cross subsidy will have to be greater and so parents will then not be able to afford or there’ll be a big imbalance between what people are paying for the hours they pay for and the hours the state pays for.
We did not manage to get to a position where the government, the local authorities and the providers agreed to sit down and work out what a fair rate should be and so that issue has been left as a problem. Everybody else in the system said that needs to be addressed but the key people that could address it have so far not addressed it because it’s difficult
Alex Dunedin: I got a sense of time being a factor in all of that; by the time you have produced reports…
Colin MacLean: Yes
Alex Dunedin: I’d like to hear just a little bit more about time as a factor in all of that example
Colin MacLean: I suppose the first question is that you need to take time to let people…I firstly identify those things which we can agree on or to identify very clearly those things where there is a fundamental difference; so in the case of child care we needed to get to a point where people realized the things that you had to agree about were firstly – do we have a view of society on whether or not mothers particularly should be encouraged to work when they have young children or should they be encouraged to stay at home ?
Does the state give incentives to work or does it give incentives to stay at home ? And if you provide affordable available child care everywhere in the country, that acts as an incentive to go to work or at least it acts as an enabler to go to work
If you provide a substantial cash sum to mothers who stay at home and don’t work then that’s a disincentive to go to work and the state could use this money for either; and in most countries they favor the first approach but in some countries they still have a tendency to the second…
…and there are big debates in Germany just now about that switch from paying people who don’t work to providing child care for those who do work; and so most people favored the first approach in Scotland but there was a significant number who were uncomfortable with that
So we had to find a position that we thought everybody could accept which was around making it neutral as far as possible so you make it possible for people who need to go to work to go to work but you try not to force people to do that by making it very difficult financially not to go to work
…and that was a continuing process but that debate had to be an early debate so people understood what the big issues were that were surrounding this – so why are we doing this child care, because, we want to make it possible for those who need to go to work to go to work
We want to make it possible for firms who need people to work on social hours, who have children, to work on social hours. The question ‘should we have a Danish approach ?’, where the expectation is if you have young children you work social hours and you go to work at nine then you leave work at four; or do we accept it’s a 24-7 culture and people will need child care at other times
So debates like that, some of which can just be presented and we say we need as a country to have a clearer understanding of our position on this, and the government and parliament need to take a view on this because what you think about that will determine what kind of child care you provide
Do we focus on child care available nine to four for everybody which is free or do you focus on affordable child care available from half past seven to half past seven; fundamentally different offering, fundamentally different way of using your resources to meet two quite different objectives
So you need to understand that objective and we haven’t had that debate. So we try to stimulate that debate and that takes time; then the next thing that takes time is getting people to articulate what the issues are and they think they know what the issues are until they begin to…
…and they do but then they discover that other people have raised things which make them reflect again and get a wider understanding of what the set of questions is that need to be addressed. What are the challenges ? What are the things when actually, when you think about what everybody wants, you can find a quick win ?
What are the things when actually things are genuinely intentional and you need to explore how you might resolve all of this – that takes time and I think if the government comes back with a very quick answer to what to do about something, sometimes that’s what you need to do, there are urgent things need to be fixed quickly or it’s obvious…
…but child care is complex so I think it’s more important that you engage people in in debate so that they become comfortable what it is we’re trying to do and what the issues are that need to be solved and what the potential is for perverse incentives. So you were talking before this interview about sort of setting targets – it’s the easiest thing in the world to set a target which drives perverse incentives
It’s very difficult, as your correspondents have discovered, to develop targets which are intelligent and drive good behaviors as well as being simple to understand so we need to take the time to think that through so we don’t end up in this case with a funding mechanism which drives you towards one model in child care where what you need is a different model of child care
…and then then it will take time for people to get their heads around the consequences of what we’re saying and to do something about it and for change to happen can take quite a long time. So one of one of the issues was that flexibility of child care is important; parents need to be flexible because they can’t expect the world to solve all their problems and they don’t.
They know they have to be flexible about when they work, what jobs they take, when they move house – all of that – in the interest of their children, to meet the needs of their employer and therefore to continue to have a job and to engage with what’s realistic for a child care provider to provide
Parents understand that and they always have and they’ve always battled that. Child care providers have to – if they’re going to offer a parents need – do more than offer a very simplistic offering or at least some of them do
So some parents are quite happy with the child care provider who offers nine to twelve for three hours, and then two to five for three hours; if you’re a parent who’s not working, who wants your child to get good quality preschool education that’s fine. If you’re parent who is working, having a gap between 12 and 2 is – you might as well not have the child care because you need to find somebody else to cover that gap
So parents need providers to offer a flexible offering; if you work shifts and your shifts change – if you’re a nurse, police officer or whatever, you need child care that can adapt to the days you need to work. Some child care providers do that others say we don’t do that – if too many of them say ‘we don’t do that’ then how do you find your child care provision ?
So you need enough of them to offer the flexibility and employers need to be flexible; it’s in their interest to retain good quality staff to help in terms of the hours they want people to work. We talk to people in a whole range of sectors – employees and employers – and I’m not going to name names but in some sectors people described employment practices in one employer and another employer in the same city – delivering the same business of roughly the same size – where one of them was much more flexible in terms of what it enabled parents to do in terms of when they worked than the other…
…and there was no obvious difference in the success of the two companies in terms of how much money they made so it was much easier for parents to work for the one that was flexible and it was difficult for us to understand why the other one refused to be as flexible
Some parents who had said to us that if their child was ill and they couldn’t go to work that they would phone in and say I am ill because they would afraid to say their child was ill because of what that would do to their reputation as a reliable employee; they would rather be thought to be somebody who was quite often ill than somebody who had to take time off to look after the child because of the perceived culture in the organization
So that… now you were talking earlier about barriers – that’s a barrier to a parent to working if their child is seen to be a problem just because the child has got a couple of days illness. So there’s quite a few points where it takes time for people to think through what the issues are to engage to understand and to get their head around what needs to happen next
The risk is that you never do anything; so you need to, as well as taking time, you run a very clear path which says we’re collecting evidence for three months and we might explain that slightly but that’s broadly what we’re aiming at. We’ll then produce an interesting report two months after that which will tell you what we’ve found, what we think, the issues are we’re going to look at next and we’ll then produce a final report with recommendations
At that point, which will be a year after we started, and we will not miss that deadline – and we didn’t. So underlying all of that we had quite tight program management with schedules of activity interdependencies, responsibilities, checking red-amber-green every time you met, everything was on track; if things were slipping working on what to do about it with a very clear indication you would finish at that point – you know or earlier…
…but certainly at that point and you produce clear recommendations so take take the time you need but within a very clear commitment to doing something- in our case make some clear recommendations that other people could take or leave that wasn’t working.
Alex Dunedin: I’d like to ask do the current systems of administration help you in achieving the successes you’d like… You’ve been aiming for
Colin MacLean: A huge question…when you say systems of administration if you mean the democratic system – the government, local authorities, parliament and so on…Yeah, broadly, yes. We don’t always deal well with issues and we certainly don’t always do what I think we should do but then, you know, everybody would say that but we have mechanisms for engaging with the people who need to be engaged with and for identifying and addressing issues so parliamentary committees, for example, can pick up issues that the government doesn’t particularly want discussed…
…either because it doesn’t think it is going to like the outcome or because it hasn’t picked that up as an important issue but the committees can, people can take petitions to parliament so there are mechanisms whereby people can get things discussed and debated; there are people whose job it is to respond to issues which have been raised – agendas set by governments – and so there are there are systems which will ensure things are addressed
There is a tendency for administrators, sometimes maybe too often, to prefer the simple solution and the status quo because that’s easier. So it would be much – I think – much better if public bodies shared resources so they could tackle common problems by focusing all of their resources – money, people’s time, whatever – on dealing with particular things and sharing accountability, sharing responsibility, for tackling particular issues – say homelessness…
…to tackle homelessness you need housing involved, you need police, you need health service, you need liability, you need a whole range of different services to tackle the issues which are associated with homelessness because homelessness is not just about somebody not having a home it’s about why do they not have a home ? Why are they not able to stay in their home even when they’re given one ? And why can they not manage to pay the rent ?
What about their relationships ? What about their health ? What about their neighbours ? All sorts – so, organisations should work together but it’s much easier for organizations to focus on their mission to do the specific thing that they are given money to do
To broaden out and tackle other issues is hard and complex and our incentives for the leaders of these organizations are very largely focused on the core mission…on the core mission, so get people through exams and don’t overspend your budget; stop crime and don’t overspend your budget; get people out of hospital beds and don’t overspend your budget
Now good leaders see… do that but do more; weaker leaders find it easier to focus just on doing that and so we don’t – I think – we don’t have systems of incentives that make that taking a broader view of society and its challenges the core business of leaders
We have systems that describe that common purpose – every government I’ve ever worked for has got a different version of that story; you know, everything we do adds up to achieving the goal and they all have that.
Some of them have ways of measuring where they were achieving that common process but I haven’t yet seen effective systems in place to force leaders locally to do that, at least as actively as they deliver their core mission
Community Planning Partnerships are a vehicle which would allow that to be done and I’ve seen them have very good discussions about collective challenges and even discussions about the potential contributions they could make as individual organizations but I haven’t yet seen really effective action that mobilizes all of the resource of each organization on tackling these common issues
I’ll give you a good example of a very positive instruction to frontline staff because frontline staff deliver and so they need to understand what that broader picture is; it’s no good the boss having the broader image if what they do then doesn’t change the perspective of the frontline member of staff
So Chief Constable instruction to police officers dealing with domestic violence; your job when you get to the house on Saturday night after a domestic is to make sure you don’t have to go next Saturday and you do what needs to be done and engage wherever you need to engage in the process to ensure you don’t have to go back – in other words solve the underlying problems
I haven’t heard an equivalent address to a teacher or to a medical person; maybe it has; I haven’t heard it but that was potentially a powerful instruction and an enabler because it was saying effectively to the Police Constable you have the authority to bring in whatever help you need to tackle that…
…and on that theme this is going back many years so things will have changed, but somebody I was talking to was describing meetings of staff from different organizations and discussing what they might do about ‘x’…
…and the social workers – this is a caricature – and he said it was a caricature; the social workers would say in the meeting ‘let’s talk about this for another five hours so we really understand what’s going on here and it’s all very difficult
The health service workers would say ‘I think that would be a good idea but I have no idea whether I would be allowed to do it, I’ll go back and find out’; and the police officer would say either that’s a good idea or it’s not and I know that I have the authority to do that or I know that I don’t and if I have the authority I will do it
So they were much more quickly got to the point in the conversation where they said ‘yeah I can do that and I will and I’ll come and tell you next week what I’ve done’ or ‘No, I can’t do that because but I’ll take it away’; whereas the health person didn’t know whether or not they were going to be able to do something.
Now I’m sure that’s a caricature; I’m sure it’s unfair – I’m sure all three organizations, you know, are not like that but it was kind of different approach that was described that people would take to sitting in a meeting where there was a proposition on the table and we need more people to be in the position of that assertive police officer that they knew what they could do and they could commit on the day to doing something
and that means, that takes bravery because as a civil servant I try to do that but I knew that I would have to go back to the office and tell the minister that I had done that and I hoped they didn’t mind; and so you need systems to have the kind of prior conversations with…as a civil servant with your minister it – applies to other people as well – where you really do understand the areas where you are able to act
And I had a fascinating discussion with civil service colleagues about that 10 years ago reflecting on different ministers we had worked with and there were some ministers who were very good in that regard, in that they would say here’s the big ambition, here’s the broad strategy that you have suggested to us and we have agreed; we’ve made some changes but that’s the broad strategy, that’s what we’re trying to achieve – go away and do it…
…and others who would want to be involved in every discussion of every detail which really slowed down what you could ever do in that area because it depended on one person would need to master all of the data but because they felt accountable for what was being done they were scared to give up that control over the detail and so you need people to have been delegated to the authority to do things throughout the system so that people the front line can take action
Alex Dunedin: It’s interesting you spoke about administration in a very humanized way – I can see a network of people… So now one of the ways we help organize those people, or ourselves, is of course, paperwork. I’m interested in that paperwork – how well that facilitates the people in those job roles achieving their remit
Colin MacLean: I’m trying to classify paperwork that I have dealt with. So, there is, there’s legislation written down – it can be amended, it can be added to; so that’s paperwork, set of rules, and everybody will have their sets of rules and if your sets of rules are in conflict or are unclear then it’s hard to know how you can act
…and some legislation is inevitably unclear and has to be tested in the courts; so you write a piece of legislation and nobody’s quite sure what it means until the courts have interpreted it. You know, what would ‘reasonable doubt’ mean ? What would ‘take all reasonable steps to’…? What would ‘have regard to’ mean ? What would ‘have particular regard to…’, is there a difference between these two ?…
…and it’s once courts have started to interpret because challenges have been brought that you understand that if you have a set of policies about education it’s only when people try to implement them in schools and then parents-inspectors-children-examiners see what that leads to and offer comment on it, that you understand if these things actually work
I mean work in the sense of being practical never mind work in the sense of producing good outcomes; you look at that as well. Is it realistic to expect a teacher to do ‘x’ when actually they don’t have the information and the knowledge and the access to the IT system they would need to do ‘x’
So telling them to do ‘x’ with ‘x’ is impossible is nonsense but it may look good on paper so the paperwork has to be tested in all sorts of different ways. So there’s the formal set of rules and instructions; then there’s, I suppose a paperwork which is the communications…
So do we communicate effectively with everybody in the system about what we are expecting about what is happening about good practice elsewhere; so there’s paperwork which people use to support their endeavors… Is that as good as it could be ? If you get… if you go into a head teacher’s office it will usually, unless things have dramatically changed, be full of books they have never read, instructions they have never read, advice they’ve never read because they don’t have time to read what comes in every day…
If they spend their whole day reading what was provided to them in good faith they would never do anything else so we have never been good as a system at shrinking down advice to what really is important and giving people high quality maps of what’s available if they want to dig into other areas in more detail, but making it clear this is the bit you have to read, these are the things you have to do, these are generally regarded as the most important issues to be addressed and then here’s a long list of other things you might want to explore or get somebody in your staff to explore to be the expert on ‘x’…
…but in a way that’s manageable and every individual administrator thinks that their topic is really important and it might be that they could write one page and that would tell people all of what they needed but that doesn’t look very impressive, does it… If you produce a 50-page book it looks like you’ve worked much harder – it’s actually much quicker to write a rubbish 50-page book than it is to write than an excellent one-page document.
So we produce far too much advice – we give people far too many avenues which allow them to distract themselves from the main business…but the converse of that is, it’s easy to cut people adrift and only give them blunt instructions with no source of support
So I’m kind of… I’m being unfair on the people who provide the advice because people need advice and help and they need to know what’s worked elsewhere and they need the networks and the good practice. So that is a very hard thing to get right and I think we will always struggle with it
…and then the third bit of paperwork will be the communication between individuals – the letters, the instructions, the emails, the complaints; you walk into somebody’s office and say ‘I found it hard thing on your course’ – that is a paperwork in the sense of a communication
So our systems for communication and for reacting to communications from service users and the public, in some organizations are very high quality and they’re very responsive and reactive, and engage with people. In other organizations they’re not and people don’t feel they’ve engaged with the organization; there was a report published today by an organization about customer friendliness… customer service levels across six major sectors – retail, banking, food, insurance, energy, and something else – right across Europe (Customer experience: New capabilities, new audiences, new opportunities; Number 2, June 2017, McKinsey & Company CHECK). Which country do you think has got the highest levels of customer satisfaction in Europe, by a high margin…
Alex Dunedin: I am guessing would germany be up there ?
Colin MacLean: No, the UK Germany is first equal on one of the areas but we are significantly ahead in every other area and the question was ‘is that because we don’t complain as much ?’; the answer was ‘we’re not sure, we need to do more research’ [he laughs], but customer engagement/customer satisfaction is… I mean it’s – I think – it’s light years better than it used to be; you are taken more seriously now as a customer but it can still be better so that’s an important area
And I suppose the last bit of paperwork I would identify is the paperwork associated with checking that things are being done, and that like all these other ones it can become intrusive, time consuming, so you need to get the balance right but you do need to test and check and give feedback on those things which are important
One example of that from my time in finance where ministers said it was important that small businesses were paid quickly and therefore government should pay its bills and therefore government should pay an invoice within 10 days of it having been received where the industry standard would be anything from 30 days to forever…
…and so one of my team’s jobs was to ensure that across government invoices were paid within 10 days and pretty much within six months most of them were but that involved monthly reports going to chief executives of public bodies and saying to them your performance has slipped and them saying that was because we had a problem we fixed but also because over there they had a problem which they have not fixed
…and we would engage in that and gradually payment rates got shorter and shorter and some people didn’t like it because it required them to do things differently and to put effort into something they didn’t think was that important and speaking to colleagues in the UK treasury they were astonished and said that was a waste of public money because the government should hold on to its money for as long as possible so they would earn interest on it and that was a perfectly legitimate view that they took but it was completely different
So we needed a system to ensure that happened whereas in Westminster they probably – if anything – needed a different system to ensure it didn’t happen; that may not have been minister’s views anymore, that may have just been the view of one treasury official but that was a quick reaction which is very different from our ministers so we need systems which ensure that those things which you are proposing to do are actually happening
Alex Dunedin: Could you talk a little about the difficulties of measuring the outcomes of the work you’ve been engaged in
Colin MacLean: If an outcome…it depends what you mean by an outcome; if an outcome is really just an output – you have built 10 miles of road; you have constructed a school; you have employed 53,000 teachers – then you could…it should be easy to measure that
It’s easy to see 10 kilometers of road; it should be easy to see 10 new schools – as long as you have a view that they are fit for purpose, so you need 10 schools which have passed some kind of test of suitability, that they’re operational. Knowing that you have 53 000 teachers in post when you do not have a single national system for employing people is quite difficult; if the number is close to 53,000 – you know – if it’s 80,000 or 20,000 that’s easy but if it’s close to, it’s difficult because people are leaving and joining all the time
Administrative systems take a while to catch up so there may be a teacher who left last week but that’s not been recorded yet so you think that person’s in post and there’s no way somebody centrally would know that person was no longer in post unless they actually controlled that admin system and there are downsides about centralizing admin systems as well as advantages
So you may not actually know you have 53,000, but, it’s on the grand scale of things it’s relatively easy to know at least you’re close, if not precisely, how many of them you have got. I have yet to find an organization anywhere with more than 200 staff who can tell me accurately how many staff they have on any given day and I’ve tried for various different reasons at various different times
People don’t know how many staff they have employed today… And you may ask why, if somebody is on maternity leave, do you include them and their replacement ? So question – ‘how many people are working for you today ?’ – the replacement; how many permanent staff do you have perched on maternity leave ?
Question; ‘how many people are you paying for the first few weeks but then only the second one ?’; so there are ambiguities in it and it depends who asks the question. Anyway but the outcomes which are really difficult to measure, as opposed to these things which are administratively difficult are ones where your outcome is…
…a healthier population…is more contented customers…is a better reputation for your organization…is international standing of your country…is young people who have the attitudes and confidence they need to thrive in today’s world…less imbalance in health outcomes across the country; …for different reasons all of these are very important
I think all politicians would say every one of these is important but in every one of these it’s very difficult to to know how you would measure it in a way that would give you the answer to the question which is – ‘is that happening ?’ – and in a way which doesn’t distort the activities of the organizations
So if you take very simple measures which are closely correlated to, for example – young people’s self-confidence is probably strongly positively correlated with their ability to, and likely success at…engage in higher education…engage successfully in employment – so other things be equal if you’re confident you’ll get one better in employment than if you’re not confident…
…but some of the most confident amoral people will be the most successful criminals, so confidence of itself is not necessarily something you want to foster in isolation and not care about the rest so you might find a way of measuring confidence but if all you focus on is confidence then that might not generate the outcomes you want
You want the people who are delivering the service to focus on all of the attributes even those which are hard to measure and you want to test if you’ve been successful by looking at a small number of things which are easy to measure and collate and compare but to do it in a way that doesn’t make them teach to the test – focus just on these things
If you want to free up hospital beds so more people can come into them, we send people home when they’ve got no care package; you just kick them out, you say you’ve had your 24 hours, you’ve got the plaster on your leg go home
Now we don’t do that but what do you measure then ?…as your test of whether you are getting people out of hospital with the proper care in place quickly enough that you are reducing the cost and the negative consequences of people being in hospital
It’s easy to measure something but it’s much harder to measure something which is measuring the right thing and is encouraging the right kinds of collective behaviors across organizations. But it’s a long way of saying it’s hard but it’s important because otherwise people will do what they believe works even if it’s not working because they have no reason to do anything else so they use their best professional judgment to do ‘x’ and if nobody is saying “actually if you did ‘y’ instead you get much better outcomes and they could see the evidence”, then you know they would do ‘y’…
So we do need systems that look at outcomes, not just ‘are you achieving what you set out to achieve ?’ but, ‘is what you’re achieving creating the kind of broader outcomes we want to achieve ?’;
The best thing for our green energy targets was the economic collapse after 2008 because economic activity went down and our green targets were probably supported substantially by the reduction in emissions caused by less activity… It doesn’t mean it was a good thing. Another curious fact – which UK country produces the highest volume of municipal waste per person ?
Colin MacLean:...which European country produces the highest weight of municipal waste per head of population ?
Alex Dunedin:…I would have guessed UK
Colin MacLean: Denmark. I don’t know why…the ones that produce most tend to be the wealthiest
Alex Dunedin: Yes, I’ve been told my carbon footprint is very good because – it is very simple – I’ve not have money to spend so yeah…so can you can you think of helpful and unhelpful examples of bureaucracies – the paperworks that help, you know…that help us organize ourselves
Colin MacLean: Helpful system…I’m trying not to get one that’s kind of self-generating so but that work. So there were systems which SQA (Scottish Qualifications Association) used after 2000 when they had problems with their exam system. They introduced systems to ensure that people got the qualifications they were entitled to but I think that’s kind… that’s not really what you mean…
So the systems for checking the information they held was the information the schools had tried to send them because one of the problems had been in school sent information in good faith, and SQA received information in good faith but it got distorted because of IT problems in the middle
So the information that SQA held was not what the school intended them to hold; so systems that check that I know that what you’re holding is what I sent to you are helpful but they’re helpful in sort of the internal process of ensuring that our engagement works
So yes that helped but I don’t think that’s what you’re meaning; systems that… I can’t think of an educational example – are you meaning a system whereby the bureaucracy helps the frontline staff deliver what they’re supposed to deliver ?
Alex Dunedin: I suppose yeah; not just the frontline staff either. I imagine it as a joint chain from the customer or the client to the frontline staff to the managers to…even to the policy makers. I don’t… I’m searching for exemplars
Colin MacLean: Okay
Alex Dunedin:…I was told a list is a fundamental organization, so what…
Colin MacLean: Okay. So everything is challengeable and this is challengeable but the system of inspection by the Care Inspectorate, by Schools Inspectorate, by others, involves people who are acknowledged experts in the field – professional experts going and looking at frontline practice and previously – 30 years ago – would have reported back to that frontline practitioner and said ‘that was very good; we would have done that a bit differently and we think that was rubbish’ and they would have had that conversation which would have been helpful to that person but nobody else would have seen it – it was regarded as private…
…and that has now become much more open and public and so the tests, the criteria, which they apply are published and so of itself that’s helpful because if you are a head teacher in a school you know that the inspectors think – based on an engagement with the educational community – that ‘this, this and this’ are important and that is the standard that we would want to achieve as a minimum
So the first way that helps is as a head teacher in discussion with my staff and parents and pupils I can say here is what nationally people say are the features of a good education system and how to test whether or not you are delivering it; and so we can test ourselves against that and then identify areas for improvement
When the inspectors come in they will then look at what we are doing in terms of education and our systems for improving ourselves based on that specification…and they will tell us and report publicly on how good is our education and how good are we at at self-evaluation and improvement. So that helps the school, that person coming in and testing them against that and publicly, so parents and other schools and everyone can see that;
…and then on a regular basis what the inspectors also do is to say ‘we’ve been to so many hundred schools, here is our summary of what we found – what we find is generally strong, what we find varies quite a bit across the country, and here are some examples of good practice so those of you who are not up to that level, here is what other people are doing so you can look at that and learn from it and here are areas where we are generally weak and could get better’…
…and so the bureaucracy, if that’s how you want to interpret that word, of the existence of these agreed standards and their application by the front line and by independent experts, and then the pulling together of all of that information – it is a big bureaucratic process, it leads to the publication of material which should help people improve.
Now if it’s not done well it can be self-congratulatory or it can be unhelpfully vague; if it’s done well it can give a sharp focus to areas where we need to get better and help us to understand where people are managing to address things effectively that other people are struggling with.
I suppose the other example I can think of is in the health service who I think are probably the were the best – and may still be the best – at learning from mistakes where if something goes wrong and they include what they call a near miss so if nobody died because somebody spotted something and fixed it but there was something that they needed to spot about something which had gone wrong in the delivery of healthcare which was found and fixed before anything bad happened…
…so things that went wrong and things that nearly went wrong as a result of healthcare practice they have a system whereby they routinely will investigate and learn from that and share that so the culture there is intended to be ‘we learn from our mistakes, and we admit that we make them, and when we make them we make sure that we learn and we spread that learning’
…and I’m not going to comment specifically on Hillsborough but one of the big underlying issues there is how do public organizations react when somebody says to them something has gone wrong and one take which there has been on what happened at Hillsborough is that organizations defended themselves rather than addressing the fact that something had clearly gone badly wrong
and one of the bees in my bonnet is that the public, politicians and media have a responsibility to send messages to organizations that ‘we expect you…’ – to do what I’ve described the health service is doing – ‘…we expect you to admit mistakes and learn from them; we do not expect you as leaders of organizations to defend your organization against all blame…
…but if we hold leaders to account for not overspending their budget and for delivering on their core business and nothing else of course they will defend themselves because reputation is important to them and reputation for not making mistakes is important to them so the first response to being told they made a mistake is ‘No we haven’t’…
…so there’s something around creating a culture whereby we recognize that the world isn’t perfect, we recognize that our organization can be better, and that it is a good thing to admit that and deal with it and if somebody comes to the door and says ‘I find this course difficult’, accepting that’s a valid thing for somebody to say and saying ‘well sit down have a cup of tea and let’s talk about it’
…and this interesting piece of legislation going through Scottish Parliament about you’re allowed to say sorry; now I don’t know how it’s going to work but the idea is that if you say sorry that doesn’t of itself mean that you’ve admitted liability. Now it’s a simple idea; I think it’s one of the Tory MSPs (Member of Scottish Parliament) who’s taking it through and it must now be through because they’re between parliaments…
…but…and very difficult to think through and practice how would that work, and what will the insurance companies make of it, and all of that; but the concept that you can admit that something’s gone wrong and that you may well have been part of the cause of it, without that of itself being something which then causes you a problem – the fact of admitting that something has gone wrong and you’re sorry it went wrong; but I think that’ll be a very difficult area to turn into something which is workable, but I think it’s important
Alex Dunedin: So an unhelpful bureaucracy or way of organizing ourselves with paperwork – with the written word – if you like…
Colin MacLean: I would…I think it’s about accountability; what you’re accountable for and to whom you’re accountable. So if you are accountable for a £10 million budget and it comes from that council and you get the budget to do ‘x’ and the council has reduced your budget so it’s only around nine and a half million but you’ve still got to do ‘x’ – in fact ‘x’ plus 10 percent – you’re not incentivized to spend a million pounds helping somebody else deliver their outcomes even if you could deliver their outcomes for a million pounds and it would cost them 20 million to do…
…which then takes you into the discussion with them which is well you give us a million pounds and we’ll deliver your outcomes for you because we can do it more cheaply than you because we could tackle the problem because of our expertise; and they say we can’t do that because we’re under financial pressure and we have to deal with the crises and, so yes if we gave you a million pounds you would reduce our costs in three years time; well, we don’t reduce our costs this year so we need that money this year
Now there are all sorts of genuine problems around that to do with spend-to-save – you’ve got to have the money to spend and the saving is usually next year, not this year, or five years, not this year; so it’s genuinely hard to do but the way we construct our accountabilities for money mean that people have got no incentive to do that sharing and sometimes they’re actually prevented from doing it because it’s tightly restricted what they can spend their money on
So if we had…if we thought about how we allocated money in a way which actively promoted the sharing of resource and the efficient use of the total resource – if we actively did that rather than actively preventing it, I think that would make a big difference
Alex Dunedin: So how often do funding administration systems change and do they have continuity in your experience
Colin MacLean: They don’t change that often. The Scottish – an example – the Scottish Government gives money to local authorities; it has a formula for allocating money to individual authorities which it has agreed with them; most of the authorities believe that they are disadvantaged by that formula. The fact that most of them believe they’re disadvantaged suggests that it may not be that bad, but never mind; but if they were to change it any change would lead to winners and losers
So politically it’s almost impossible to agree a change that’s a meaningful change unless you are willing to say to one constituency ‘we don’t care what you think’; so the system continues. Council Tax – everybody says council tax is a dreadful system but nobody has produced any serious workable alternative because there’ll be winners and losers…
…I mean there are practical reasons why Council Tax is actually a reasonable system but people don’t like it but they don’t change it council tax is not dramatically different from the old rating system and it’s not very different from any other system anybody’s proposing; you know parties are talking about a property value based system – well that’s what council tax is, the only difference, the only issue is we haven’t had re-evaluations and the bands are quite wide but it is a property value-based local taxation system
So because changing it would produce losers and winners, and because winners tend to keep quiet and losers tend to be very noisy, people don’t do it. So financial systems don’t change very much. I’ve been involved in some changes but they’re not…fundamental changes or even if they could be, the system has a tendency to turn them back into something which it recognizes – which might simply be that we have a very very good financial system that doesn’t need change, but I doubt it
Alex Dunedin: So you see the funding structures as enabling long-term planning
Colin MacLean: To the extent that they are stable – as in my last answer – yes, you can, broadly speaking, depend on getting more or less the money you got – certainly for the big bodies like local authorities and health boards; now there might be a collective reduction in resources, as there has been recently
In very broad terms you can expect to get roughly your ‘share of’ except for some of the smaller national bodies where they might grow and contract quite quickly but the big multi-purpose organizations they tend to have relatively stable fund incomes so they can plan on that basis but then they also have large fixed costs because there is a tendency for public bodies not to change staff numbers quickly and to have a big property portfolio which have got fixed costs…
…so when you look at a local authority or a health board or a police service, the flexibility they have within their funding is actually quite limited; so they may have £500 million to spend but £470 million of that is pretty much set at the beginning of the year unless you do things about staffing levels which would be very unpopular and they tend not to do that and so the flexibility is quite limited
Now that’s not built into the financial system but that’s a political reality; so the finances allow you to save 500 million, ‘what are we going to do with it ?’ – nothing in the financial system stops you doing that but the political realities mean you can’t actually exercise much of the choice that you might have around that; one of the challenges for government is to create headroom – money which is not preempted for fixed costs…
One council in Scotland, years ago now – I don’t know if they’re still doing it – they deliberately squeezed budgets enough to create a million pounds that was genuine new money. Now they had to squeeze budgets to do that but they squeezed out some money and they said that is money to invest in preventative activities so council departments were then able to bid for for that money to use it for genuinely new activity but – and I don’t know whether that they did or not -…
…but the risk there is then, that what the departments do is to use that money to pay for core staff and so they end up with exactly the same staffing structure as before and the money has appeared to buy something new but actually it doesn’t…and they could have achieved the same result by telling staff to do different things but then what different things would you tell members of staff to do if you’re going to get a clearance revolt if you reduce the number of teachers in a small rural school
So you don’t, so you let things stay as they are until the money actually disappears and then you’ve got to change; so taking money away from people is probably the only way to generate that kind of change unless you have very strong leadership which can stand up to the public’s wish for services to remain untouched
I spoke to one Director of Education years ago who was proposing a new school by amalgamating two other schools and he said to ministers ‘Please please please accept this because I have worked with the local communities to convince them that it’s better for their children to have one new school halfway between the villages than two schools, and they’ve now bought into that and I’ve been so successful if I have to go back to them and say you’ve got to keep your old schools I’ll have a rebellion on my hands’.
So managing public expectations, and I don’t mean that cynically, I mean working with the public to understand what really is in their interests. Is it in your interests to have one specialist in your local hospital or a team of five specialists in a central hospital in an area where usually that specialist is sitting doing nothing ? It might be better in some aspects of health to centralize and have centers of expertise at the expense of some local specialisms but you know what happens to ministers when they are seen to be centralizing health specialisms – they come under huge pressure…
…because there’s a local view that we are losing our expertise when actually the clinical view might be you have access to better expertise, as long as there’s transport – which is why you can’t solve these problems just by looking at health you’ve got to bring out all the other services in as well.
Alex Dunedin: Have you had the latitude to implement the policies you have felt are important at the time
Colin MacLean: Yes, but not always. Ministers – this was like I said earlier – ministers vary a bit in the level of detail that they want to specify. So, if a minister says I was elected to do ‘x’ so you need to make ‘x’ happen, and they were elected to do ‘x’ and ‘x’ is legal and possible, then my job as a civil servant is to try and make ‘x’ happen, and there have been times when that’s been the case and I’ve thought ‘x’ is not sensible and I may have told them privately that, not that I thought it was insensible because that wouldn’t have been a career enhancing move but explored the issues – the kind of reaction they will get when seek to do ‘x’…
So you want to do ‘x’; that’s fine, you can do ‘x’ but be aware that when you do ‘x’ these are the consequences – people will say we’ll float on that and some ministers are quite susceptible to that and some get very angry and say ‘are you in my side or not?’ – ‘I’m on your side, I’m just telling you that if you do this that’s the kind of reaction you’ll get from that group and that group alone but if you want to do it that’s fine – it’s my job, I’ll do it’.
So in some areas you have to deliver something you don’t actually believe in; quite often you’re quite neutral, I think fair enough, you know, it’s a perfectly reasonable way of trying to achieve something – I might or might not have chosen to do it but it’s not my choice
There’s other areas where they say we want to do ‘x’ and so within ‘x’ you’ll need to make decisions about or ‘we need to make decisions about how to achieve ‘x’, what do you think ?’, and so you have a conversation and say ‘well I think if you did this, which would have these other benefits as well, it would help to deliver ‘x” and they said ‘okay fair enough…
…and the other areas where they would say ‘away you go and do this and you work out how to do it’. So there were times when, for example, on the school assessment they would say ‘we want this kind of assessment system for schools’ and you would go and talk to teachers, to parents, to employers, to the SQA, and you would come up with a kind of a proposition on assessment and then you would have to judge – ‘do I take it to the minister and just test they are comfortable or do I take it to everybody and get them to agree it and then it’s kind of a ‘fait accompli’ [An accomplished fact, something that has already occurred ]…
…and that was part of your judgment if you took everything to ministers all the time they would never get any work done. So you would have to take the important things to them and say this is…so you would have a regular series of meetings as a senior civil servant with your minister where you would talk through the range of important things you were doing and they would say ‘that seems fair enough; I’m not sure about that; let me go and talk to so-and-so and come back…’
So you could have conversations privately, not on paper, no bureaucracy in that sense associated with it. So that when you then come to them and say we’ve had discussions with all the different interest bodies and here is the proposition of assessment, you know they’re going to say ‘yes that’s fine’…
…the worst outcome is they say ‘why didn’t you tell me because I don’t like that because…’ or even just ‘I don’t like it, I don’t have to say why’; so you would try and avoid that. So a roundabout way of saying, yes, in some cases and quite often there was a widespread consensus about how to do something. It wouldn’t matter which political party it, was ministers would broadly agree about a certain aspect of the education and so the fact that I also agreed simply reflected the fact that it was a consensus.
Did I ever get to do something that ministers disagreed with – no. That…I would sometimes test things and suggest things publicly which ministers might have chosen not to test publicly and sometimes I would be quiet about something that they would have liked to have tested publicly and that’s just to do with, you know, you can’t cover everything in these conversations and so sometimes you strayed but that’s where your relationship with the minister is important; and you know you tolerate them doing and saying things publicly that make your life harder and they tolerate you not always doing and saying publicly what they would have done…
…and sometimes they find that helpful – that they can dissociate themselves from what you’ve said so it’s not the minister’s fault, it was the civil servants. So there’s a lot of subtlety around that relationship. I did stand off stage with the minister – I won’t say who it was – who went on stage to make a speech which we had written and they said ‘I’m not going to use your speech, I’m going to make your life very difficult’, and it did, years afterwards…I didn’t disagree with what he said, it just made life difficult
Alex Dunedin: So, are you able through existing structures to forge the connections with outside organizations that you think are important ? So that’s the original question I’ve got here so when you’ve been acting…
Colin MacLean: Yes, as a civil servant you have a privileged position in that people will by and large be willing to talk to you and so in that sense you don’t need to force connections, you can, you know, ‘I’m from the government, I’m here to talk to you’, and by and large people will say ‘okay’ – you know, – as long as you don’t abuse that and distract them too often. So people will have conversations, that’s not the issue, the challenge is converting that into action.
Alex Dunedin: Do you feel that the language used in the administration, outcomes and measures, the paperwork that we find in situ adequately represented your day-to-day experience
Colin MacLean: I think that’s probably a permanent process of improving the language which is used. Documents – whether they’re statements of standards, statements of legislation, communications, ways of dealing with complaints, advice – they have to be understandable by the person who’s intended to receive them. We went through a process with school reports of looking at the documents we published for schools which were 20 pages long of dense prose written by people who spent their lives writing dense prose about education and said ‘well, these are now published, we need a version for parents’.
So what would a version for parent look like ? Shorter, easier language, to the point, not lots of description about things that they won’t understand. So I produce a four or five page summary, and what do teachers say ? That’s the one we read – that’s the one we find helpful – ‘Do you need that one ?’, not really.
Five pages – a permanent process of doing that and reading legislation, I mean it’s quite sad to say that I quite like reading legislation. I spent a lot of time doing it trying to understand it; a good piece of legislation can be understood by anybody with a reasonable command of english – a bad piece of legislation would challenge anybody to understand. Even for complicated topics
So if you get a good draftsman who writes a good piece of legislation the process is so interesting; I see as a civil servant I would like this to be achieved through this piece of legislation because that’s what the minister wants. A lawyer then turns that into a set of instructions, which I need to be happy with, instructions for the draftsman – who is a very specialist lawyer – who turns that into legislation; so it’s a three-stage process
So broad policy intention – test it with ministers and everybody else who might be affected – construct a set of instructions to the lawyers as a civil servant saying ‘this is what they want to achieve’ – they then turn that into a formal set of instructions to the draftsman who then writes the law
At the end of that process, that piece of legislation, if it’s well written would be understandable by the person who is affected in the street – or at least by the person in charge of the organization because otherwise if that’s what’s going to drive what they do and they can’t understand it there’s no point
So a permanent process to make legislation easier to understand, to make policies and instructions easier, to make commentary easier to understand, try – back to the first thing, you need to to have enough flavor and colour and content to be helpful but it all needs to be expressed in the language that people can understand so…
…and letters, you know, if you get a letter you don’t understand it, then the person wrote the letter is wrong; it’s as simple as that and unless you have a particular problem which they couldn’t have predicted in terms of your understanding of…now if you don’t understand English then, you know, that’s a challenge for them so they need some people to interpret…
…and there are questions as to whether the formal interpretation of English into other languages then necessarily creates exactly the same legal sense; so when you have something translated from English into Gaelic or into Polish or whatever, do you end up with something that legally is saying exactly the same thing.
That must be a problem for the EU (European Union) where everything is written in several languages. So they must spend a lot of time checking that it doesn’t matter whether you use the German version or the English version, you know the same rules apply
Alex Dunedin: You mentioned something earlier which I thought it had slipped my mind; you mentioned self-generating paperwork. What did you mean by that ?
Colin MacLean: I can’t remember… Oh yes it was, if you have a system…; so we have children over here who are doing work in school and they’re demonstrating what they can do and you have somebody over here who will post a certificate to them to say you’ve got a standard grade three in English or Nationals Five in English now, whatever it is; what’s the system that connects that performance with that issue of that certificate ?
…And there’s a whole series of bureaucracies connecting the performance in the exam room to issue the certificate and it’s not just that that paper is sent to Janet Brown who sees it and says ‘oh that’s good’, and signs a certificate, you know; there are thousands of people involved in that process so I was I think I was talking about the internal systems that ensure that all of that works and connects
So whether it’s to ensure you have the right number of people available to do the marking and you get the papers to them, on time, on days when they know they’re going to be doing the marking and they get the papers back securely with their marks on them.
It’s these kind…that’s what I meant by self-generating so there’s a challenge here which, from the pupil’s point of view is invisible. I sit and write a piece of paper give it to you and then two months later she sends me a piece of paper – I don’t care what happens in there as long as what comes back feels reasonable in terms of ‘I thought I did quite well and I got a ‘B’, so that’s fine’, and if not there’s a system then to go and say you should have got the right grade. All of that’s inside this box, that’s all I meant.
Alex Dunedin: Great, great. So you’ve worked in various positions and various sectors, the next question I’ve got is – Is the sector adequately funded or resourced. So, thinking about, in terms of care or wherever you care to place the context
Colin MacLean: I’ll give you a civil service answer to that because I think it’s the right answer; it’s about priorities. So ‘what is our priority that determines, and decisions that determine, how much money the government has in the first place ?’. So Scottish Government has roughly £30 billion every year – so there’s a series of decisions that leads to that being the number they have to play with…
…Decisions made in London, decisions made in Holyrood – so that’s the money we have to spend; and then you have a series of choices about how you spend it. I’m leaving aside those things which would be politically difficult to reduce and so, could you cut health spending ? That would be very difficult politically even if you wanted to, it’d be hard to do; it doesn’t mean you couldn’t do it, just that it’ll be difficult…
ditto education, police and so on. So there’s a series of choices made and at the end of that then individual organizations and sectors get allocated a chunk of that resource;…and they are constrained in how they use it and they can make choices how they use it.
So, is it adequately funded ? I would struggle to find anybody who wouldn’t say we could use more money. Having said that in the 1990s and early 2000s when money was growing rapidly people did struggle to work out what to do with it except do more of the same. The tendency was to employ more police, more teachers, but not to think about what they did – just assume more was better.
As numbers have been put under more pressure now then people have to think about ‘how do we use this resource as effectively as possible ?’ because back to the earlier conversation about do we shrink our horizons and deliver just our core business or do we engage with other sectors and other organizations and say ‘the job is not to deliver education, the job is to deliver better outcomes for young people, old people, people generally, women, whatever it is and say ‘across all of our different resources using our about £30 billion what can we do which will best improve these outcomes ?’.
So I think in a sense the amount of money is there; there’s not much that somebody working in a sector can do to affect the total amount of money available. What they have to do is to decide how they use the money they’ve got access to and ideally how they can work with others to use the full amount of money
Alex Dunedin: What role should broader society…
Colin MacLean:…in that conversation I have sometimes said to employers, a bit mischievously – only a bit – ‘You pay for all of this; well, you pay corporation tax, you pay VAT, you pay where else you pay, and you pay your staff; and they pay taxes and they buy goods and services; so all of the money that is used to deliver public services come from you, the employers, because you generate the wealth. So you have a stake in all of these decisions because ultimately you pay for it’.
So we’re talking about child care for example I said to a group of employers – ‘who should pay for this ?’; – ‘Oh the state should pay for it.’ – ‘that means you because you’re paying the money which will end up being the money that goes to the state, so ultimately you pay for it’.
‘Now do you want to pay for it directly, do you want the parents to pay for it through the wages you give them or do you want the state to pay for it through the taxes that you and the parents give to the state ?…but you’re paying for it, so engage in this
Alex Dunedin: What role should broader society play in facilitating the work that you’ve been engaged with ?
Colin MacLean: Taking responsibility – this is individuals and organizations – taking more responsibility for accepting that what we say as individuals and as pressure groups affects how the public sector bodies work. So if we always want to find the guilty person and we buy the newspapers that say find the guilty person and sack them; that’s what we’ll get.
We’ll get witch hunts, we’ll get blame culture, we’ll not get a culture of improvement. If we always insist that our local school is kept open because it’s our local school and our local health centre and our local bus then we’ll get atomized decision making and we’ll not get central resources. Everything will be local and I think localism is important but if all of the resource is spent locally and not spent collectively then we’ll get less – if that’s what we want and we say that, we have to accept that’s what we get.
So if we want really good cancer centers we have to give up some of our local resource, you know, imagining… I suppose, we need people to understand that you can’t just wave a magic wand and the government will produce more money. They might produce more money but it will quickly be devalued by inflation so, you know, but there are economists who would argue that you can create more money just by producing more money, you know – quantitative easing, and all that kind of stuff -…in general terms the amount of resource there is is something we need to accept is constrained…it’s not the government that…
…the government is an agent who implements what we want. So we are deciding when we pressurize for certain things; we are deciding not to have other things and we need to know that. So when you engage with your school, your health board, whatever it is – I think we need to help people understand better the constraints that these bodies are under.
It’s not to make excuses for their poor activity; it’s understand the world they live in, you know, quite often people say ‘that’s your job’ – I say ‘what would you do about ‘x” – ‘oh, that’s your job, you’re the civil servant, it’s not my job’; I say ‘well actually it is your job, this is something that I’m not expecting you to be an expert, I’m expecting you to engage in’.
Now I don’t use that language in my head I’m saying – ‘I want you to engage in this because this is important and if everybody in this room engaged in this issue we might find a solution. If you all stand back and say it’s your problem, find an answer we then produce an answer and you all say I don’t like it’, we don’t go anywhere. So it’s about engaging
Alex Dunedin: The next question I’ve got is how might clients or service users best support you in delivering support; so this study has been very much looking at support services and the way that bureaucracy has been encountered – is encountered – at the point of consumption or the client side
Colin MacLean: I put the responsibility on the organizations to create an environment in which the service user and the public – who may not be the same thing – the service user of a prison is not the same as the general public; its a very small subset of the general public, so I distinguish these two…
…create an environment whereby they engage constructively so I don’t just tell you to supervise your child’s homework, I engage with you in discussion about your child’s progress/development/education and as part of that, help you to understand how you can help your child; and when you’ve got anxieties about something that’s happening in the school, I create an environment where you feel you will be listened to but not to the extent that you as an individual parent get your own way at the expense of all the other parents…
…and so the balance there is enabling those people who are reluctant and afraid – usually afraid to engage – enabling them to engage without empowering the people who do not need any more empowerment because they already dominate the system;… and one of the teams that I led dealt with special educational needs and one of the biggest problems they faced was all of the different advocacy groups for different special needs, all believing that their group was effectively the most important.
Now it was very important, and it was first equal with all the others, but it… sometimes they understood the perspectives of the others, sometimes they just pretended they didn’t exist and they said ‘This is what really matters’….And you have to say ‘yes it does really matter but so do all of these things as well, so let’s find a more collective way of dealing with it; and that’s hard because that involves seeing other people’s perspectives.
So it’s about empowering those who need to be empowered, engaging with them on their terms and language they understand – without talking down to them -, if you can’t make it simple that’s your fault, I don’t fear that…
…but without empowering the people… giving more power to people who already have a disproportionate share of influence. There are communities in Edinburgh where if there was the slightest hint that anything might change in that area, would activate their networks and ensure it never happened, because they are well connected; they know all the lawyers, the advocates, the politicians, the doctors, whoever it is – they can just go to the source of the power and get them on their side because they’re married to them; because their children are… you know….
Whereas other communities don’t have that engagement with the levers of power so I suppose that’s… it’s somehow balancing that better, which isn’t to say that the people in the advantaged communities have less influence – it’s to bring others up to that level so everybody can engage with the sources of power as effectively.
Then that makes life hard for the people delivering services because they’ve got more people to listen to and they’ve got to take into account but that’s tough; but we need to tell them that’s what we expect them to do.
If we tell them that their job is to deliver ‘x’ then they’ll ignore the voices at the door; the job is to listen to the voices at the door, engage them, help them understand what the service is about and how to deliver it for the best outcomes; that’s time consuming but important
Alex Dunedin: So the final question here is ‘what questions… – you know, within the context or which context you feel important – …what questions do you think are important to be added to this list in working towards greater understandings
Colin MacLean: Well, I think we’ve covered a lot. I think I would like to explore something about incentives for senior managers, leaders… so what is it… what’s the P-45 question ?: If you did ‘x’, you would lose your job; or if you didn’t do ‘y’ you would lose your job; are the things that are on the ‘x’ list or in the ‘y’ list the right things ? I don’t think they are because I think you must overspend your budget, you must deliver on your core objectives, are just about all there is.
You don’t lose your job, by-at-large by not engaging with other organizations; you don’t lose your job if you don’t engage well with the public; now I’m not saying that you should lose your job, I’m saying we should think about the priorities that leaders face and people in the boards and the equivalent political groupings, make the big decisions
So in a university, should you be required as the senior management of the university to engage with your local community ? Your court might choose to tell you to do that but if push comes to shove you’re more likely to have to grow your budget and increase your research rating because that’s what matters
Now, I’m not taking a view on that, I’m just saying that the absolute top priorities for principals of universities may not be the ones of taking that broader view of what we’re trying to achieve in Scotland – it may not be the view you would take and I wouldn’t want government interfering in that process, it is a different set of discussions but is there a mechanism which ensures that the senior leaders of the various different public, and the bodies in the public area, have the right set of incentives and responsibilities and I think they don’t; I think it’d be interesting to explore what other people thought
Alex Dunedin: Absolutely fascinating and is there anything else that you’d like to say or include
Colin MacLean: No, no
Alex Dunedin: Thank you very much Colin
Colin MacLean: It is a pleasure