The LibDems have been through a torrid time over the last couple of years in Scotland. Being aligned with the Tories in government brought the party to the brink of oblivion at the Scottish elections last year. Being the junior partner in a government dealing with the global financial crisis and an enormous structural deficit has drawn the LibDems to be associated with unpopular NHS reform, draconian changes to the assessment o disability benefits and tertiary education tuition fees.
The question many people ask is that it is all very well having the ministerial cars but what difference have the LibDems made? What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?
I asked Willie Rennie what he thought the LibDems are for.
He picked out four things
This is clearly a passion of Willie's and a topic he has given a lot of thought and devoted much reading towards. I was worried for a moment that we might start to exchange some lame platitudes on this subject but as Willie expanded on his thinking I was pleasantly surprised that there was some real substance as to how we might make public services more effective and there was some real depth to Willie's thinking.
For Willie Rennie making public services more responsive to people is about moving control away from the centre of our providers of various public services and empowering staff. They know what to do and are well trained.
It is why the Liberal Democrats remain opposed to a single Scottish police force!
Willie is extremely interested in developing some of the latest thinking on the provision of effective public services. He sees it as a partnership between the consumers and providers of services. This is getting at the fundamentals.
He went on and gave some examples of what he meant. We take too bureaucratic, too controlling an approach seeking safety first - we don't innovate enough in this segment of the economy. He told the story of a housing department in a central Scottish local authority - authority that was top rated regarding achievement of service targets but near the bottom regarding public satisfaction..
"Somebody fills in a form wrong, no one at the desk takes initiative and comments - they just let it go. It goes to the office and they send it back. And so it goes on to and fro until the matter is solved 6 weeks later. But the council feels they have done well which is completely different to the perception of the service consumer! The council was focussing on its processes not its outcomes. The form was passed to the department, the form was processed, queries were answered - all within the set SLAs (service level agreements). They didn't fix the problem but they processed the form in the right timescale."
A focus on outcomes and allowing frontline staff to make sure the form was right before they sent it for processing would have improved this story. It is also about encouraging and embracing community capacity and voluntary action.
It is also about the need to change attitudes councils to the independent/voluntary sectors, particularly the perception that if the council doesn't directly offer a service it isn't good enough.
I was struck by Willie Rennie's charisma as well as his ability to commuicate. He has a twinkle in his eye. As he spoke about how society can work better he looked forward to how Scotland can be better in 50 years time. It is a liberal vision based on communities and giving opportunities to the individual to improve all our lives.
I will visit some more of what I discussed with Willie Rennie and share some of my thoughts over two or three subsequent blogposts