The Christie Commission - Ten years old and still pointing the way


Fraser McKinlay was formerly Audit Scotland’s Director of Performance Audit and Best Value. Prior to joining Audit Scotland, he was a consultant specialising in change management. He is currently Director of McKinlay Consulting and is working with The Promise Scotland to support its work on Human and Economic Cost Modelling.

This certainly won’t be the only blog post written to mark 10 years since the publication of the Christie Commission report. Quite rightly, the work has become synonymous with the Commission Chair, Dr Campbell Christie CBE, an outstanding public servant and advocate for a fairer, more equal Scotland. The Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services remains perhaps one of the defining reports of the devolution era. Speaking to colleagues about its publication 10 years ago today, we remembered a genuine sense of excitement, hope and expectation. It felt like anything was possible.

The Commission’s report provided – and still provides - a clear and challenging vision for the future of public services in Scotland. It is thoughtful, insightful, and practical. Based on the four principles of empowerment, integration, prevention and efficiency, it provides a blueprint for the public services we all want and have a right to expect. And, importantly, it provides a compelling articulation of what public services should be for. The Scottish Government’s response, published in September 2011, also gave hope that radical change was possible, perhaps even likely.

It is also worth remembering at this point that the Christie Commission report came out around a year after another important, but perhaps less well remembered, piece of work. The Independent Budget Review, chaired by Crawford Beveridge, had a more specific, and arguably less attractive, remit. The panel’s job was to identify ways in which the Scottish Government could manage the major squeeze in public spending that was on the horizon at that time, as we began a decade of austerity.

It is a report worth revisiting (although very difficult to find – I found this from the Centre for Scottish Public Policy website, but couldn’t locate the actual report!)  as we think hard about how we prioritise spending in future to recover and renew our public services. In particular, it is worth reflecting on one of its main conclusions, which proposed, ‘subjecting all services to scrutiny and comparative prioritisation, without an overriding presumption of protection for any of the major services’

Ten years on, there is understandably real frustration that things have not moved as far or as fast as we would have liked. I hear people saying that we have failed, that it was a missed opportunity, that we need to do more. And, of course, all of that is true.

But it is also true that progress continues to be made. Countless numbers of people delivering public services in their local communities have worked tirelessly to turn the vision of more preventative, integrated and efficient services into a reality. Across the country, public servants have been diligently getting on with the job of prevention; working with partners to integrate local services; leading their teams, organisations and communities; improving performance. The Community Empowerment Act (Scotland) Act 2015 has enshrined an outcomes approach in statute. There has been a huge range of legislation and public service reforms over the years, ostensibly designed to further the vision of public services described by Christie. We have been doing stuff.

But it is also clear that the stuff we have been doing hasn’t delivered in the ways intended. Those dedicated public servants make progress in spite of, rather than because of, the systems within which they work. And there is an emerging consensus across civic society that Scotland is good at vision and policy, and not so good at delivery. The so-called implementation gap.

So, ten years on, we reflect on how far we have come and, inevitably, how we have fallen short. If we feel that the ambitions of Christie haven’t been achieved, then why not?

I had the pleasure of attending The Robertson Trust event on the 22nd of June, looking at Christie plus 10 through the lens of The Hard Edges report, jointly commissioned by The Robertson Trust and Lankelly Chase. We heard very powerful contributions from a range of excellent speakers and those conversations will continue.

There was clear agreement that if more and faster progress is to be made, we need to tackle some pretty fundamental issues. Money. Power. Accountability. This is the stuff we need to confront, challenge and overcome if we are to make progress.

I have spoken at several points over the last 10 years about the Christie report and the progress we are, or are not, making. Reflecting on all of that, I think there are perhaps three key issues we haven’t properly addressed, and which continue to hold us back.

  • Money – we are not being bold enough about how we spend our money and resources. We need to better understand how money is currently spent and to what end; how we can better spend that money in future; and how we need to invest to make the shifts required. The problem is not that we don’t have the money; the problem is that we are choosing to spend it on the wrong things and in the wrong ways. This is the work I am leading with the Promise to implement the human and economic cost modelling approach.
  • Accountability and incentives – our governance systems continue to value organisations over partnerships; outputs over outcomes; and linear rather than systems-based accountability. Transformational change will continue to be elusive until we fundamentally shift our thinking and ways of working around how we hold people to account and how they are incentivised to do the right things, in the right way.
  • Strategy – this is my version of the ‘implementation gap’. I think we are poor at strategy in public services in Scotland. Good strategy is about making choices, and (more importantly) choosing what not to do, or do less of. We have too often given the impression that we can do everything. We need a more rigorous approach to deciding where to put our resources, in ways that will improve outcomes and maximise value for money. It is clear that thoughtful, tailored, co-designed and truly holistic family support would be a good place to start. 

Whilst at Audit Scotland, I was involved in the Independent Care Review’s work on ‘Human and Economic Cost Modelling which resulted in the reports Follow the Money and the Money. Since leading in April, I have had the privilege of working with The Promise Scotland team. I have been so impressed with their compassion, commitment and determination to get it right for children and families and #KeepThePromise that was made in February 2020.

There is frustration at the pace of progress. The ‘care system’ is failing too many children, young people and families. This is not new.

The change programme published last week lays out a clear programme of action to deliver Plan 21-24. The hard work of delivery has already begun.

Change Programme ONE is very clear that everyone with a stake in the ‘care system’ should act now and make improvements where they can. There can be no hiding places for people or organisations who drag their feet.

But we also need to recognise that the changes envisaged by the Care Review are genuinely transformational and long term. We are right to look to 2030 to #KeepThePromise. The systemic problems are deep rooted and decades in the making. They will take time to put right.

So, the hard, unglamorous, messy work of change has begun. It won’t be quick, but nor can it wait. We need to build coalitions, be clear about expectations and make immediate progress where we can. And we must always keep in mind the babies, children, young people and families that need that little bit of help just to keep going. To make progress and, ultimately, to flourish. It will take time. And we need to get on with it.