Report urges ‘significant reform’ of Scottish public services and better workforce data

Auditors acknowledge digital transformation plans, but warns that these will take time to bear fruit and, in the meantime, Holyrood needs to better understand public sector workforce skills and costs

The Scottish Government needs to act quickly to deliver services differently, according to a report from Audit Scotland. 

The assessment argues that the government’s public sector reforms must support the workforce to manage the change, rather than “simply doing more with less”. Audit Scotland says that the Scottish Government’s projections suggest it cannot afford to pay for public services in their current form.

The study acknowledges that “The Scottish Government has committed to target both short-term efficiencies and a ten-year programme of reform to achieve effective and person-centred, fiscally sustainable public services, [with] ‘efficiency levers’ that will support this, including… digital reform, including delivery of modern digital public services, [and] shared services, such as an increase in collaborative working between public bodies and more shared functions such as sharing finance and HR departments.”

But the report added: “It will take time, however, to see the full financial effect of these levers.”

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In addition, pay deals agreed for 2022/23 and 2023/24 were £1.7 billion more than initially planned and are locked into future budgets.

The Scottish Government is working with its public bodies to better understand how workforce reforms will impact services. But Audit Scotland says the government needs better data on the size, cost and skills of the workforce in over 100 of its public bodies to help support this process.

The report also warns the Scottish Government should “expect changes in workforce numbers by public body based on existing workforce plans”.

Since devolution in 1999, the Scottish Government’s workforce has grown significantly, rising from under 150,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees in 1999/00 to over 245,000 in 2022/23 – an increase of around 65%.

Auditor General for Scotland Stephen Boyle said: “Significant reform of the public sector – including its workforce – is needed to protect services over the long term. That means better workforce planning and wider changes to how staff work within and across organisations. An approach to reform purely focused on controlling workforce numbers will not address workforce pressures and is unlikely to balance the public finances.”

Ruaraidh Gilmour

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