A sustainable future for Scottish services?

A rights and assets-based approach is needed to create sustainable public services. Scotland could  already be leading the way, by Ruchir Shah

Social work is moving to a crisis point, advice agencies are inundated and our network of food banks are seeing record high demand for their services. Scotland’s public services are under strain and not just because of recession and cuts to welfare budgets.

Projected demand on services from an ageing population means that the way we currently deliver services is not sustainable. Quite simply, we need a fundamental shift in the way we support each other.

There have been many attempts to quantify the problems but few proposals on how to tackle them have been put forward. The Independent Budget Review in 2010 discovered that health and social care for over 65s would need to rise by 74 per cent by 2031 under current service patterns.

The Christie Commission subsequently found that many of our services meet demand only at the very late and expensive crisis stage, with 40% of current budgets sucked up by reactive spending.

More recently, the Centre for Public Policy and the Regions reaffirmed the unsustainability of free personal care and the Finance Committee has just launched an inquiry into the ageing population.

So what’s the alternative? Two interesting new approaches are gaining traction. One has become known as a rights-based approach, the other an assets-based approach.

The rights approach builds on the idea of human rights and specifies the minimum standard that people can expect. The onus is then on the state to ensure that this requirement is met.

Alzheimer Scotland is successfully using this approach to promote the dignity of people with dementia. They have now proposed a ‘charter of rights’ as a way forward building on their award-winning work on tackling the stigma surrounding the condition.

Oxfam Scotland is also adopting this approach via its Humankind Index, which is an attempt to measure what really matters to people in their communities and put that at the heart of government policies and programmes.

The asset approach takes the view that everyone has something to offer and attempts to support people to connect together, pool their collective resources and meet their collective needs more effectively.

One example of this model in action is the Food Train in Dumfries & Galloway. Its emergency food support is built on a bank of volunteers delivering groceries to the doorstep of vulnerable people.

Each approach has its shortfalls. By setting a minimum expectation, the danger is that this becomes the level and ambition at which public services are set. Recently, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested that a family with two children should earn at least £36k in order to participate in society, so where do we draw the line?

The rights approach almost implies entitlement. Some people have attempted to balance out rights by introducing responsibility. In contrast, the assets approach is presented as a way towards empowering people to build on their own resources. But at what point does this become making do with what you have?

The way in which Cameron’s Big Society project has fallen flat, is testament to the attraction we have to services delivered directly to us by the state. Pushing for assets approaches can raise suspicions.

The proposition is simple. Building on the existing social, human and natural assets of people and their communities should be the default way in which services are delivered. We then need to ensure that human rights underpin the way in which services are designed.

The focus here is not on what people should expect to be provided for them but on what people should expect for themselves. Taken together the overall result should be a meaningful life, which shifts the focus away from the amount spent on x, y or z to the collective resources mobilised.

Ruchir Shah is Policy Manager at the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations