Welcome to the Public Works blog.

Public Works is UNISON Scotland's campaign for jobs, services, fair taxation and the Living Wage. This blog will provide news and analysis on the delivery of public services in Scotland. We welcome comments and if you would like to contribute to this blog, please contact Dave Watson d.watson@unison.co.uk. For other information on what's happening in UNISON Scotland please visit our website.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Why the robot workplace damages workers and their organisations

Obsessive and unnecessary recording and reporting at work increases costs and places undue stress on staff. Coupled with new monitoring systems, workers are being turned into robots, before they are actually replaced by them.

Two different discussions with members, one private sector employer and another in an NDPB (quango), highlighted for me the waste that can develop when employers allow reporting systems to spiral out of control. 

The story was similar in both organisations. Workers told me that they spend a quarter and a third of their time providing reports on what they are doing, in different formats, to different parts of the management structure. The main departments responsible for generating these reporting demands have grown exponentially, while front line staff are under huge pressure, coping with increased demands on delivering the service. 

What particularly irritates staff in the NDPB, is that they take the same data and have to input it into the computer system and then put parts of the same data into two different spreadsheets. There is no smart systems working, or any indication that management have any insight into the waste this approach causes.

Looking at the annual reports of both organisations, I can see no qualitative evidence that all this reporting has had any noticeable impact on their public reporting. It is a regular feature of Audit Scotland reports that there is insufficient data to judge this and that. In the public sector this is sometimes used as an excuse for expanding data collection. It's a point we often make in response to Audit Scotland reports and something they ought to reflect on.

Taking this one step further, we have John Harris in the Guardian writing about a novel and new film on the fictional (for now) Circle Corporation, whose leaders want privacy and autonomy to count for almost nothing. Workers are under constant monitoring and a system of endless appraisal by their peers, who feed into a system called Participation Rank – or PartiRank, for short.

The details of their online and offline lives are judged according to “an algorithim-generated number” that measures their activity. “It’s just for fun,” a company high heidyin tells the story’s principal character. But, of course, it isn’t, it's just one more example of the passive-aggressive ways of Silicon Valley that appears to be spreading to Scotland.

Both my examples involve administrative jobs. However, similar intrusive work monitoring takes place in the huge warehouses run by online retail giants, and driver deliveries. Sports Direct and Amazon are well known examples, and there was a story last week that one in ten workers in another retail warehouse had been so ill that they had to be sent to A&E.

I have long been irritated at the use of the phrase 'human capital'. It's as if HR departments feel they need some numbers to put them on a par with the finance department. Even I had a phone call the other day from a company wondering why I hadn't taken up their invitation to 'get on board' with the 'science' of HR metrics. After a five minute lecture from me about the difference between people and robots, they probably regretted the call! I see one company is trying to sell robots to undertake care tasks. I am sure our long suffering elderly care service users, just can't wait for this quality interaction!

The latest buzz highlighted by Harris is 'people analytics'. Some systems are straightforwardly intrusive: Worksnaps, takes repeated screenshots of workers’ computers, count their mouse-clicks and take webcam images. BetterWorks uses a Facebook-like application that depends on employees publicly posting their supposed workplace goals, and regularly issuing “cheers” and “nudges” to their colleagues. “In the office of the future,” says the chief executive of the company responsible, “you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it". I can't wait!

There are now tracking apps for phones that can log the whereabouts of staff 24 hours a day. A US-based company called Humanyze (really!) is working with British businesses including a high street bank and the consulting firm Deloitte, as well as parts of the NHS. They say: “Humanyze’s badge can track physical activities in real time, capture ‘nonlinguistic social signals such as interest and excitement’ without recording actual words, locate wearers and their proximity to other wearers, and communicate with other electronic devices.”

Harris concludes: "Judging by the way the idea is sold, the people responsible, for reasons that speak volumes about the tech world’s endless naivety, they see it as a kind of super-efficient utopia. Anyone with a grasp of what makes us human should surely recognise it for what it is: Stasi capitalism, apparently furthering its dominance at a terrifying speed, with only the faintest murmurs of protest."

There is another way for those employers who recognise that their workforce consists of diverse talented individuals who want to do a good job. A study by the ILM has found that more than half (53%) of employees would consider leaving their job if the structure and culture of their organisation didn't change. According to the research, lack of employee empowerment is the root cause of much dissatisfaction in the workplace.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of staff surveyed said they wanted more freedom in their roles, but a third (34%) said their work was overly regulated, and that they were forced to work within overly controlled structures. 64% of staff surveyed said they struggled to do 'fit in' with their organisation. Despite two-thirds (66%) of employees wanting to have a greater say in their everyday working lives, just 24% said they felt their line managers fostered collaboration.

John Yates, group director at ILM, said overly authoritarian workplaces should be “a thing of the past, people today want to work for flexible, fun and friendly organisations. Organisations need to be flexible, allowing employees to pursue career ambitions and manage conflicting home life pressures as much as possible, and encourage creativity – injecting passion and new ideas into the workplace.”

I can think of a growing number of organisations that need to recognise this and change their systems, behaviours and culture - urgently!

Friday, 27 January 2017

Council budget cuts - cutting through the spin

This year’s local government budget allocation has been subjected to even more political spin than usual. So here is my attempt at a bit of clarity.

The war of words in the Scottish Parliament chamber is about the Scottish Government’s draft budget and how much they have allocated to local government. That is a very important part of any council’s finances, but it isn’t the whole picture. 

Lets start with the Scottish Government’s budget allocation to local government. The 2017-18 draft budget will cut the local government budget by £327m.  

The detail of that is set out in parliament’s independent information service report and this chart shows very graphically how badly local government is hit. 

COSLA also fairly put local government funding into context when they say:

”The financial facts are straightforward on this matter:
  • In 2017/18 the revenue settlement for Local Government fell by 3.6% (£349m)
  • In 2017/18 Local Government’s share of the Scottish budget fell from 30.6% to 29.7%
  • LG Revenue Funding as a share of SG funding has decreased by 3.7% (£1bn) between 2010/11 and 2017/18 

Make no mistake the Scottish Government has a political choice here and with additional cash of £418m for next year there was no need for such a drastic cut to Local Government.”

The Scottish government responds to attacks about cuts to local government budgets by listing funding for their key policy initiatives for example:
  • £120m for pupil equality scheme 
  • £140m for energy efficiency 
  • £47m to mitigate the bedroom tax 
  • £470m for capital funding for housing 
  • £107m social care funding 
Worthy though this spending is, it has little impact on the £327m budget cut. This is because this money is ring-fenced – it’s to pay for new initiatives and so can’t be used to plug the gap caused by the budget cut. The pupil equality scheme will go straight to schools; the social care funding is to pay for the living wage in social care, much of which is provided by the third and private sectors. Capital funding doesn’t pay for day-to-day services and so on. 

The one additional source of revenue that the Scottish Government can fairly refer to (although not include in their budget) is the £111m extra revenue generated by changing the council tax bands. In addition, any council that decides to increase the council tax (capped at 3%) will also generate real income (up to £70m nationally) that will mitigate the budget cut. 

I think councils should use these powers to mitigate austerity. I understand the argument that the Scottish Government is not increasing its basic rate of income tax, but expects councils to increase the basic rate of council tax. However, as my old gran used to say, ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ – councils should not be the local  ‘administrators of austerity’.

Even this additional council tax funding will vary council by council, depending on their housing mix. For some authorities the number of households paying more tax will outweigh those paying less through the changes to the council tax reduction scheme. In other councils with a higher proportion of low-income families and fewer expensive homes, the picture will be more challenging. 

When UNISON branches sit down with their council finance directors they will find the reality of the local budget bears little relationship to the claims made in parliament. 

The council budget starts with their allocation (in itself controversial) of the Scottish Government cuts, mitigated by the extra council tax revenue and other modest income sources. Then they will be faced with what are described as ‘unavoidable commitments’. This year the biggest of these is likely to be the Apprenticeships Levy and it is as yet unclear how much of that money, if any, will come back to local authorities to support their apprenticeship schemes. In fairness, some of the ring-fenced grants will obviate some of what would have been unavoidable commitments, like the social care living wage costs. The result of this calculation will be budget deficit.

In conclusion, the finance minister’s spin simply doesn’t match the budget reality on the ground, but opposition parties also have to accept that there is some mitigation. However, the net result will be a big cut in the real budget for every local authority, although the scale will vary between councils. This will result in service cuts and even more job losses. 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Fight Poverty Not Just The Consequences

Children in less well of families have worse health than their better-off peers. Not exactly news. The health of children in Scotland “among the worst in Europe” again not a surprise. These headlines are becoming all too familiar. What we see less of is action.

This week’s headlines follow a report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health: The State of Child Health.

These reports come out with depressing regularity and despite their recommendations and fine words from politicians the facts remain the same.

I have no issue with the report’s recommendations per se:
improve breastfeeding rates with more workers to support mothers
reduce childhood obesity by ensuring unhealthy food isn't available near schools, colleges and leisure centres
do more research
extend smoking bans to school playgrounds

All healthcare professionals to discuss being overweight with patients every time they see them maybe a bit challenging and anyway I’m not sure anyone who is overweight is unaware of it. Imagine someone coming into the health centre with severe depression having to deal with “ I know you are depressed but let’s talk about your weight” no matter how well its put. I think health staff should make judgements about how to support people to lose weight on a case-by-case meeting-by-meeting basis. But again I’m not a health worker so what do I know?

Action to lift people out of the poverty that is actually causing their problems would be cheaper and more effective in the long (and short) term. For example a £5 a week increase in child benefit as called for by CPAG

It isn't wrong of the Royal College to focus on health services it is their area of expertise after all but a more holistic approach and focus on improving wider public services would make a massive difference. Breastfeeding on or waiting for a bus is much more challenging than if you own a car. It’s more than lack of info about the benefits: there are real barriers.

Improving housing, transport, environmental services, parks sports and leisure centres alongside education and job creation would make substantial leaps in the quality of the physical and mental health of families and children.

How many more times will we see these reports with no action on poverty?

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Draft Scottish Energy Strategy

The Scottish Government has set a 50% renewable energy target in its new draft energy strategy.

The consultation paper highlights the huge huge shifts in electricity generation in recent years, following the closure of Longannet. There has been a big increase in new supply of renewable electricity.  However, that leaves Scotland with a different kind of energy challenge; one where heat and transport take on even greater significance than electricity. 

Choices about the local supply and consumption of energy are broadening, and the patterns of energy use are also changing.  There are opportunities to shape Scotland’s future energy system, and to help tackle the challenges of climate change, affordability of energy, and the efficiency of energy use.

In parliament this afternoon the energy minister, Paul Wheelhouse said: 

"To maintain momentum, a new 2030 all energy renewables target is proposed in our energy strategy, setting an ambitious challenge to deliver the equivalent of half of Scotland's energy requirements for heat, transport and electricity from renewable energy sources. I hope that members will welcome this landmark proposal given the support shown for such an ambition last month in this chamber during the debate on support for Scotland's renewables sector."

The plan aims to deliver:
  • a modern, integrated, clean energy system, delivering reliable energy supplies at an affordable price, in a market that treats all consumers fairly; and 
  • a strong, low carbon economy – sharing the benefits across our communities, reducing social inequalities and creating a vibrant climate for innovation, investment and high value jobs. 

The ‘whole system’ view seeks to describe where Scotland’s energy comes from and how it is used. Energy efficiency is to be the cornerstone of this through the SEEP programme.

The ‘stable transition’ is driven by the need to further decarbonise the energy system, in line with emissions reduction targets. However, this still involves a ‘strong oil and gas sector’ and a commitment to support carbon capture. That will be challenging given that the UK government made a complete hash of pilot schemes, as highlighted by the National Audit Office recently.

The ‘smarter model of local energy provision’ means moving away from central provision to local innovation. There is considerable opportunity to create decentralised or distributed energy systems, but progress so far has been pretty slow in real community ownership. 35% of Scotland’s electricity generation still comes from our two nuclear power plants. 

The strategy repeats the commitment explore the potential to create a government owned energy company (GOEC) to help the growth of local and community projects – although still no detail. This will include empowering communities to use the income from energy development to support other communities develop their energy potential. They will also explore the creation of a Scottish Renewable Energy bond in order to allow savers to invest in and support Scotland’s renewable energy sector. 

It is important to emphasise that this is an energy strategy, not just an electricity generation plan. So heat and transport use are also important issues.

On jobs, the paper claims the renewable energy industry employs 14,000 people, with up to 43,000 in the wider low carbon and renewable energy economy. To put that in context, 125,000 are employed in oil and gas production.

There is a separate consultation published today on unconventional gas (fracking), so no decision. The paper places considerable emphasis on new energy sources and it is very difficult to see how dirty fuel from fracking fits into this strategy.

Overall, the ambition in the strategy will certainly be welcomed, although there will be some concern that the new strategy is no clearer than the old one on how it will be achieved. In particular, there is no detailed breakdown of what the future energy mix will actually be. Much of Scotland’s energy policy also remains reserved, and the strategy, predictably, if largely fairly, highlights a number of damaging decisions.

There will be a four month consultation closing on 30 May 2017.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Doing What Works

One of the less discussed issues in the debate about the growth of inequality over the past 30 years is that it has led to many people believing that government attempts to fight poverty and inequality have failed. This seems to have left many feeling nothing can be done. The welcome new analysis by IFS shows that many measures have been very effective and that a government that wants to improve life for those on low incomes can make a massive difference.

It is true that the one percent have increased their share of incomes but if you strip out the extremes and compare the 90% with the ten per cent then you see an increase in inequality in the 80s but this then begins to fall and it is lower now than it was 20 years ago. The tax and benefits system has “worked increasingly hard to offset the rise in inequality in pay in working households”
Both the deliberate increase in benefits and introduction of tax credits in the late nineties and early 21st century have boosted the incomes of low income households and protected those on low incomes from falls in pay.

Inequality in weekly pay for women has reduced. This is in part because there is no longer such a big variation in hours worked by women. Crucially women on lower hourly pay are more likely to be working full-time. So those women in the 10% percentile saw their weekly pay rise by 60% between 1994-5 and 2014-5 while those in the 90 percentile had 29% rise. Female weekly pay has also risen faster than male pay narrowing the gap between median weekly pay for men and women. This is partly due to rises in education levels for women relative to men.

But while net household income inequality has fallen weekly pay for men has become more unequal. Hourly pay for low paid men has been slow to grow and low paid men are working fewer hours which impacts on weekly incomes. It remains rare for middle and high wage men to work part-time but low paid men across all age groups are increasingly part-time workers. Whether men have partners or children does not seem to alter this trend. So it is not a sign that men are suddenly choosing to cut back working hours to take up a bigger share of childcare. Access to decent pay and full-time work is a grwing problem.

There is some good news: the tax and benefits system has been very effective in improving income equality across working households. Government focused on reducing poverty and inequality can make a difference.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Ethical care: good for workers and those they care for

Raising social care standards is good for workers and the people they care for.

Today, I was at North Ayrshire Council, the latest employer in Scotland to sign up to UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter. The charter commits employers to a range of Fair Work principles including; the Scottish Living Wage, travelling time, sick pay and stable employment contracts. That’s good for workers, but it’s also good for service users, because the Charter provides for proper training and time to care, based on client need.

The Ethical Care Charter was developed by UNISON at UK Level in 2012, following a survey into the working conditions of homecare workers across the UK and production of a subsequent report, “Time to Care”.  The survey responses showed “a committed but poorly paid and treated workforce which is doing its best to maintain good levels of quality care in a system that is in crisis”. The comments from workers illustrated the correlation between poor terms and conditions and lower standards of care for the clients they served. 

UNISON Scotland surveyed Scottish homecare workers and published its own report entitled, ‘Scotland: It’s time to Care’ in February 2014. We followed that up with another survey ‘We Care Do You?’ in July last year. Both surveys painted a grim picture of social care in Scotland with the majority of workers indicating that the service was not sufficient to meet the needs of the elderly and vulnerable people they cared for. In particular, they didn’t have enough time to properly address people’s needs, with budget cuts and outsourcing putting an emphasis on quantity over quality.

The race to the bottom in social care has primarily been driven by budget cuts to councils. That neglect is now being addressed through additional funding, which should at least ensure that the living wage is paid, even if funding falls short of ensuring time to care. In part, the change has been driven by a belated recognition of the impact cutting social care is having on the NHS, with hospital beds being filled by patients who should be cared for in a community setting.

Councils who sign up to the Ethical Care Charter are showing just the sort of political leadership we need in Scotland on this crucial issue. We expect seven councils will have signed up by the end of this month – leaving plenty of room for others. 

Raising employment standards will help to address the high turnover of staff in the sector, providing some much needed continuity of care. Elderly and vulnerable people in Scotland deserve the highest care standards we can provide.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Getting It Right in the Early Years

UNISON welcomes the Scottish government’s commitment to expand early learning and childcare. It is an important step in tackling both poverty and the attainment gap. Universal high quality childcare has been a long-term aim of the labour movement. The lessons of the expansion of the adult care sector need to be heeded: leaving delivery to the market managed via procurement contracts has led to a fragmented service, which is costly and hard for users to navigate, with varying quality of service and a race to the bottom for staff terms and conditions.

The private childcare sector is already struggling. The recent NESTA report Innovation in Childcare (Jill Ritter July 2016) states that “profit margins are tight for many providers”. So tight are they that the “innovation” NESTA offers as a route forward is to use unpaid volunteers including parents presumably to maintain profit margins.

The Scottish government is now considering voucher type schemes or extra funding for the private sector. Not only does this have a high risk of creating a service based on low-paid and unqualified staff it risks creating a two tier system where those who can afford to pay more will have access to better nurseries than those on low incomes. This will do the opposite of closing the attainment gap.

The JRF programme paper: Creating an Anti-poverty Childcare System states that a shift to supply side funding for pre-school childcare services is the most effective route forward:
“International evidence and the best examples of high quality provision in the UK suggest that the most effective approach to funding pre-school childcare is supply side funding, where investment is made directly in service. This approach provides the means to offer universal access to services and effectively shape the quality, affordability and flexibility” (Executive Summary page 3)

“the case for supply funded childcare is simple: it is the most effective means of delivering reliable access to affordable, flexible and high quality childcare regardless of ability to pay” (Executive Summary page 3)

Two of the many advantages of public sector provision are the ability to better co-ordinate childcare with other services, for example where an extended day nursery in co-located with a primary school on the same campus or links to child psychologist/social workers and ensuring that there is a fully qualified properly paid workforce. The government’s own research shows that “cheaper” nurseries only cost less because they pay the staff less. High quality provision requires fully qualified paid staff. If high standards for staff qualifications and pay are not set then we will end up with the same issues that are now causing problems in the care sector.

A comprehensive childcare service will directly benefit families and lead to long-term savings on a range of budgets. Setting up a childcare service will be expensive but if we are serious about building a fairer Scotland it is essential investment.

UNISON submission to the Scottish Government Consultation is available here