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Putting the public back at heart of public services

WE live in a world of increasing functionality, with touch screen accessibility and an instant ability to take decisions over almost all aspects of our lives, whether that's dealing with the basics like paying domestic bills with online banking, or organising our next getaway when purchasing this year's holiday over the internet or engaging with our friends using social media applications on the latest smartphones.

Ours is the communication generation, taking advantage of technological advances which have been faster than any of us could have imagined and are often still surprised by. We expect instant answers to questions, we demand that problems be solved in an instant, and we have the ability to develop a working knowledge of most of the processes and procedures which affect us.

We have become adept at identifying barriers to progress, we know when institutional inertia needs replaced by innovation and we expect Scotland's public service family to not only keep up, but to help by delivering improvements to service quality just as fast. We don't expect vested interests to be protected; we reject any outdated rationale which seeks to defend the status quo where it clearly does not work or will not be fit for purpose as the world around it changes.

All around us the world is changing, people are adapting to meet new challenges or just thinking about old ones in a different way. As the impact of the great economic tsunami, which swept the world's financial markets laying waste to our banking system hits home, we stand back aghast as those responsible for the crash appear to be readying themselves for a return to a value system that is clearly broken. We know that a new way to organise society is required, one which is much more local, reconnecting people and place to give communities greater control over the decisions which impact upon their daily lives.

The horsemeat scandal continues to demonstrate in all its shocking and complex detail why communities all over Scotland are re-acquainting themselves with "the importance of place". The scandal of supply chains which shift food across never-ending networks, allowing breaches that bring into question the integrity of the entire globalised system of food production is rightly turning the public focus towards their local town centre or high street. Local, independent traders are witnessing a huge upsurge in sales as people gather around that which is familiar, sheltering from the storm.

Scotland's towns are experiencing a renaissance, with people beginning to take not only a pride in their place but control over their town centres too. Discussions are happening in a town centre near you about its real role and function. New partnerships are emerging to bring people together, from public and private sectors, across the social sector too, all with a common interest in the viability, vibrancy and vitality of the place in which they live, work or play.

Scotland's Towns Review, chaired by the charismatic architect-designer Malcolm Fraser, has been gathering evidence from the four corners of the country and will report in April. The strength and depth of the content is shaping up to reflect communities' clear desire to ensure that we go beyond retail and the narrowly-focused prescriptions of the Portas Review which is seeking to save the English high street from itself. Ranging across economic, social and cultural aspects, the Scottish solution looks likely to reflect the character of our towns, recommending a strong reconnection of people and place, not a simple transactional relationship which starts and ends at the shop till.

A quiet revolution is taking hold, transforming our town centres –the birth of the Scottish Business Improvement District. Gone are the days for centralised command and control prescriptions, where local action is really taking root, whether that's using the BID mechanism, the creation of a development trust or some other partnership which is putting local people at the heart of local decision making.

In Bathgate, old ways of working are no more, in Elgin, a partnership between town centre traders and local schools is ensuring a stronger link between education and employment, in South Queensferry, one of the latest BID plans are being carefully laid to make the most of an increase in cruise liner traffic and the regular disgorging of thousands of passengers seeking out that uniquely Scottish experience. Ambition is all over the country, BIDs are reconnecting people and place.

In our cities too, people are taking control, developing a range of interventions that allow businesses and local people to invest both financially and personally, reclaiming the streets to create a better operating environment for all involved. Rather than sit back and wait for the visible indicators of recession to arrive, boarded-up shops and For Sale signs above them, local people are taking control, working in partnership with public authorities to deliver real, lasting sustainable change.

This co-production of place is also seeping into our public services, once the preserve of the professions and politicians. Producer interest, masquerading as an attempt to deliver equality of service provision, and built upon a mass market model designed during the industrial age is making way for the public interest. Our ability to communicate with each other and with those in whom we have entrusted publicly-owned assets and services is increasing exponentially.

As the police are centralised into a single Scottish service, then regionalised out to a new divisional command structure, our colleges are working towards regionalisation from a different starting point. The NHS, nominally structured around a similar number of regional boards is coming under increasing pressure to decentralise decision making whilst our local authorities are, ironically for the only democratically-elected part of local service provision, undergoing change often out of the public eye.

We are seeing the design, development and delivery of services changing apace, making use of the hardware which we now have at our disposal and the software which represents our collective thoughts, actions and aims. Scotland's public services are changing, a picture of coherent reform is emerging with each sector increasingly able to compare and contrast their respective steps along the road to reform. We're seeing the public being placed back in the heart of our public services.

Ross Martin is policy director at the Centre for Scottish Public Policy, On Thursday The Herald will publish, in association with the centre, a 24-page supplement on the future of Scotland's public services.

Ian Bell is away.

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