When I was asked to undertake this Review, like many people involved in public service, I thought the problems were obvious - there are too many scrutiny bodies; they cost too much; they create needless burden and divert resources away from delivering services. Surely it was just a case of removing some of the organisations? Having spent a year examining the problems, I've reached the conclusion that the answer is not that simple.
When I spoke to stakeholders - including both those undertaking scrutiny and those subject to scrutiny - they all agreed that scrutiny was important, and many were able to point to benefits. However, those responsible for providing services were critical of the current scrutiny 'burden' they perceived to exist, with many suggesting that the costs outweigh the benefits. It would not have been possible for me to undertake a systematic assessment of every external scrutiny organisation in the time available and I have found that reliable information about costs and benefits of external scrutiny is neither readily available nor straightforward to establish.
The landscape appears to me to be unnecessarily complex. There are a significant number of external scrutiny organisations in Scotland, all with some responsibility for checking and assessing the work of those who provide services to the public. The number of organisations perhaps reflects the large number of service delivery organisations responsible for providing an ever-increasing range of complex services to a diverse population, and a corresponding need for the public, and those elected to represent them, to be assured that those services are being delivered effectively and efficiently, in line with expected standards.
I have concluded that many of the current external scrutiny arrangements are a result of assurance being required about particular public services at a particular point in time, and these arrangements have not subsequently been subjected to a rigorous assessment as to whether they are still required. Further, where new external scrutiny has been introduced, there has been no real prioritisation against existing requirements and how new scrutiny should fit in an already cluttered landscape.
My other principal area of concern is the role of service users and the public in external scrutiny. While those responsible for carrying out external scrutiny are trying to engage service users more systematically, research suggests the level of engagement is not yet where it needs to be. Further, the extent to which service users and the public are truly benefiting from external scrutiny seems at best opaque.
I believe this failure is most apparent in the complaints handling area of scrutiny. I have dedicated a specific section of my Review to complaints handling, and set out recommendations that would make it easier for the public to make complaints and for service providers to learn lessons from complaint outcomes.
For all strands of external scrutiny, the model I am proposing, if adopted, would lead to a substantial reduction in the burden experienced by providers and, in the longer term, would reduce significantly what I believe to be an over-crowded landscape. It will also make clearer the costs and benefits associated with external scrutiny. The model proposes a greater focus on the experience of the user and of the public, widely accepted to be the ultimate beneficiaries of scrutiny. It also proposes a greater role for elected members, at local and national level, in both the development and the use of scrutiny. I propose placing a far greater responsibility on those who provide services to assess and report their own compliance, performance and capacity to improve. Furthermore, I propose a more consistent and transparent assessment of the risks that external scrutiny is expected to address, alongside robust assessment of the likely cost.
The remit of the Review has been extremely wide-ranging and has required us to prioritise within a tight timescale. From my dialogue with key stakeholders it is clear that it is accepted that the time is apposite for change as our public sector services have evolved and become more complex. The proposals I am making for change are radical, but follow the outcomes of the extensive evidence that has been gathered and the logic of what I believe should be the shape, purpose and methodologies of scrutiny regimes and complaints handling processes in the years ahead.
It would have been easy at the outset to suggest a straightforward rationalisation, or to propose significant budget cuts - indeed, those options are still open to Ministers and to the Parliament. However, I am firmly of the view that doing that, without considering how the resulting landscape would operate in line with the outcomes we wish to achieve, would risk losing important functions that the various external scrutiny organisations currently perform.
Nonetheless, what I am proposing is very significantly different from the current arrangements. I do not under-estimate the work that will be required to deliver it but, given the concerns that have been expressed to me during the course of the review, and my own view of the complex arrangements that have evolved, I believe it is right to recommend these steps be taken now.
If my proposals are adopted, I strongly believe Scotland can create a leading edge public scrutiny model and function linked to a revised complaints handling system that is not just more satisfactory than currently exists, but mirrors a public service delivery culture of excellence.
Professor Lorne D Crerar
Independent Review of regulation, audit, inspection and complaints handling of public services in Scotland