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Power and money go hand in hand. Those that have one, often have the other, even if it doesn't feel like there is enough of the latter. Scotland's local authorities are places of significant power and responsibility. Most of the legal duties associated with the 'care system' sit with them. Decisions about childrens’ and families’ lives are made there, the efforts to support and improve practice drive out of there.

But, as so often, the conversations we have about power and responsibility, namely who has it and what to do with it, are in fact conversations about money. And then, the inevitable conclusion that things aren’t working as they should is generally determined to be because there isn’t enough of it being spent or enough to go round. For Scotland to #KeepThePromise we need to get out of this loop; we need to have a different conversation.

The Independent Care Review tackled this problem head on by, quite literally, following the money through local government financial records and setting what it found against the context of people’s lives – namely the human costs. The result was the Money and Follow the Money reports, which highlighted that the cost of delivering the current ‘care system’ in Scotland  is around £942million each year. The universal services which can be associated with care experienced people cost a further £198 million every year.

Perhaps the most depressing finding was that the cost of services required by care experienced adults because of the current ‘care system’s’ failures is £875million each year. A further £732million is lost as a result of the lower incomes care experienced adults have on average throughout their lives.

It’s not hard to conclude that something isn’t working. But, given the numbers, it is hard to conclude that the problem is only down to a lack of money. In actual fact, there is a risk that ploughing more money into a ‘system’ that is broken and does not work for those who it serves to help, will not actually improve outcomes.

The point is not to spend money to be seen to act, the point is to spend money to make things better. Changing this mindset helps us turn the conversation from the amount of money to what the money is spent on, and who by and ultimately who benefits in the long run. The Promise Scotland focused on this part of the jigsaw and established the 'Using Money Differently' work programme, set up to take the principles of the Follow the Money report into something that can support organisations to, you've guessed it, use money differently.

Working to those principles begins with three questions, which seem simple enough and are important for all prospective local councillors preparing for office:

  1. How are you currently spending money in and around the 'care system'?
  2. If you had a blank sheet of paper, how would you spend differently?
  3. What would you need to do and invest to get to where you want to be?

These questions are inevitably difficult to answer, as local authorities working with The Promise Scotland will attest. The Follow the Money report made patently clear that spend on the 'care system' is not simply associated with the children and families social work team. It is in fact found in budget lines across multiple local authorities and health boards, so the answer to the first question above starts with engagement.

Again, this may seem simple enough. But that engagement will quickly throw up recording inconsistencies, likely duplication, a lack of detail and information, an inability to identify care experienced people within national data, a lack of joint working, spend focused on short terms solutions because the root cause of the issue is systemic – the list is complex and endless. Importantly, you are unlikely to reach a number you’re confident in, which means you don’t have the data you need to unlock the answers to the two questions which follow. The problem is the ‘system’ and the way it works, and the solution must begin there, rather than in calls for more money.

Unless you understand that ‘system’ and what it spends in its totality, calling for more money is a short-term solution. Tackling the ‘system’ that keeps swallowing that money whole and perpetuating itself is a hard and a long road, but the improvement that will bring is surely worth it.

There is no magic button you can press to find out how much money is being spent, let alone how to spend it differently. But as you enter office, and have oversight of budgets, you can be asking the right questions. As you become one of few people in local government who can see across the whole programme of spend, rather than siloed segments, you can be thinking differently, exploring how to do things differently, with people at the heart. You can work with your teams to understand spend in its entirety and start to think about how you might want to spend that money  better, leading to improved outcomes. Different local authorities have divergent dynamics and no one set way of doing things, but, when it comes to children and families, the main goal should always be about working to #KeepThePromise.

Your local authority challenges might be about getting children back into the local area from far away placements, which will certainly mean investing in support for the whole family and making sure all young people are properly supported into young adulthood, and beyond. Maybe your primary challenge is health outcomes and the high numbers of poor experiences - in that case, your work inevitably lies in the social causes driving them and finding a way to ensure that social care spend, and health spend is better joined up. Or perhaps you’re dealing with high levels of deprivation and social isolation and trying to tackle that through a social work lens, when, perhaps the real breakthrough would come from looking at how accessible the public transport network is and whether those living in that area are able to get to the nearest towns to work, shop and receive support consistently and effectively.

Regardless of your focus, you have a huge challenge on your hands to shift spend. It's not easy to turn the tap off from one set of budgets to another, particularly in the context of competing demands across important spend. Frankly, it’s easier not to. It’s easier to make the direct links between power, responsibility and money, and conclude that the reason responsibilities aren’t being met and outcomes aren’t improving is because there is not enough money.

Except, the way money is currently spent isn't working for anyone and hasn't for some time. Somewhere, in amongst all the other demands on your time, that should niggle. So, as you prepare for your important role as a local councillor, be brave. Start with where your local authority is and draw up a plan for better.  One thing is clear - spending more money in the old ways isn't going to cut it to #KeepThePromise.

About the author

Fraser McKinlay - Chief Executive Officer
Photo credit: Sarah Maclean

Fraser McKinlay

Chief Executive Officer

Fraser McKinlay is the Chief Executive Officer of The Promise Scotland and sits on the Board of Directors.

He spent 16 years working for Audit Scotland, including ten years as Controller of Audit and Director of Performance Audit and Best Value (PABV). He has been running his own consulting business since April 2021.

As Controller of Audit (CoA), Fraser reported to the Accounts Commission on all matters relating to the audit of local authorities in Scotland. In his ten years as CoA, he produced over 60 Best Value audit reports across all local authorities, alongside many other statutory reports.

As Director of PABV, Fraser was responsible for performance audit across all sectors of public services in Scotland. This work focused on:

  • governance,
  • financial sustainability, and
  • value for money.

Before joining Audit Scotland, Fraser was a public services consultant with Eglinton in Edinburgh and KPMG in London. He specialised in leadership, change management, facilitation and process improvement.

Since starting his own business, he has worked with a range of clients in the public and third sectors, specialising in:

  • strategy,
  • leadership, and
  • change.

He is particularly interested in systems change, and how we use public money more effectively to deliver improved outcomes for citizens, families, and communities.

In October 2021, Scottish Ministers appointed him as a member of the Independent Oversight and Assurance Group for Mental Health Services in Tayside.

Fraser holds:

  • a Postgraduate Diploma (with Distinction) in Strategic Leadership from Warwick Business School, and
  • a degree in Industrial Relations from the University of Strathclyde.

He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.