By Graeme Roy

Ten years ago this week, the Christie Commission published a landmark report into the future of public services in Scotland.

Chaired by the highly respected trade unionist Campbell Christie, the commission argued for a rethink in the running of public services in Scotland. Without change, the twin pressures of growing demand from an ageing population and shrinking budgets would soon see a deterioration in standards.

The report called for radical reform. Amongst other things, greater efficiency, and collaboration. Crucially, it also called for a shift toward tackling the underlying causes of Scotland’s poor health record and inequalities as opposed to trying to fix things once broken.

Last week, on our University of Glasgow Spotlight podcast, we spoke with former Auditor General Caroline Gardner and Professor James Mitchell, a member of the Christie Commission, to get their take on progress.

The podcast is well worth a listen. Both talked of improvements in some areas, but also of significant challenges. In the main, their assessment is one of lots of ambition, but a rate of progress that has been slower than we would have hoped.

If anything, the scale of the challenge is now even greater than it was 10 years ago. The Covid-19 crisis has shone a light on the deep-rooted inequalities in our society, both economically and socially. The legacy effects of the crisis in key public services, including education and health, will last for some time.

The outlook for the public finances is challenging too. Whilst there may not be a return to the austerity policies of the early 2010s, the costs of paying for Covid-19 will mean that budgets for day-to-day public services will remain under pressure.

When reflecting upon the last decade of public sector reform in Scotland, it is hard not to reach a similar conclusion on the Scottish economy.

Yes, there have been successes and good progress made in key areas. There has been major new investment in Scotland’s infrastructure, and there is now a much greater understanding of the value of inclusive growth and wellbeing. Initiatives such as the Scottish National Investment Bank and the new South of Scotland Enterprise Agency all offer the promise of a more dynamic business base in time.

But whilst there has been talk of reform, it is remarkable how similar the day-to-day policy landscape is today compared with 10 years ago.

Policymakers in Edinburgh will no doubt argue that this reflects the fact that Holyrood’s powers on the economy are constrained, that a decade of austerity has limited options, and that challenges – from the collapse of the oil price through to Brexit and Covid-19 – have hampered progress.

Yet there are huge areas of public life where Holyrood has significant powers, and where we’ve seen only limited reform. Many of the challenges in the Scottish economy, from our low business-start-up rate, below-average levels of investment, or small manufacturing base, have been known about for years. Is the lack of progress because whilst we may have the right ideas, the execution of these ideas isn’t right? Or are the reforms needed just too difficult to implement?

Last week, we had the announcement that Adrian Gillespie will take over the top job at Scottish Enterprise. In my opinion, having worked with Adrian at both Strathclyde University and when in the Scottish Government, this is a great appointment.

A key reflection from both Caroline Gardner and James Mitchell was that where reform in Scotland’s public services has been successful, it has often been down to leadership rather than new resources. As the leader of Scotland’s largest enterprise agency, all of us who have an interest in the success of the Scottish economy can only wish Adrian the very best of luck.

Graeme Roy is professor of economics at the University of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School