The COVID-19 pandemic is being met with a heroic effort to save and protect lives. Across the world, radical changes to the way we live and how public services are structured and delivered have been implemented in record time to ensure basic needs are met and to slow the spread of the virus.
Scotland is a small country with interconnected public services and a shared desire across the public sector and civil society to see more prevention and asset-based approaches to service delivery. As such, we are in a strong position to learn from the rapid response to the pandemic and build a more resilient and inclusive society in the aftermath.
When we begin to emerge from this crisis, the best elements of the culture, scale, pace and flexibility of the COVID-19 emergency response should be maintained as we seek to rebuild and recover in Scotland. These can help ensure we navigate a route to greater resilience and a social recovery in Scotland that does not worsen existing inequalities.
In this feature, we summarise some key challenges in the context of COVID-19 in Scotland, and explore how new thinking and approaches might be used as a framework for renewal in the months and years ahead.
Only weeks into the population-wide measures to reduce the impact of the pandemic, the risks of unintended consequences that may deepen, rather than reduce, existing inequalities are already becoming clear.
Jobs and economy
Those in higher paying jobs are much more likely to be able to continue to work from home in the current lockdown when compared to those in lower paid, and often more manual jobs on less secure contracts. 53 per cent of those currently living in relative poverty in Scotland live in a household where at least one adult works.
The latest modelling from the respected Fraser of Allander Institute details a potential 20-25 per cent reduction in Scottish GDP if the current lockdown lasts for three months. This would be an economic shock many, many times greater than the 2008 financial crash. Even as the immediate health crisis moves past the peak phase of the outbreak, unemployment, underemployment and in-work poverty will likely all get worse.
Strict social distancing has forced schools, colleges and universities to close and teaching has been suspended or moved online. This means learners with no or limited access to the internet and other digital tools – overwhelmingly those from lower income households – are suffering as a result, further widening the attainment gap in Scottish schools and negatively impacting the life chances of many.
Vulnerability and life expectancy
People with pre-existing health conditions, homeless people or those living in insecure or unsuitable housing, are all more vulnerable to the virus now and to the longer-term social and economic effects as they unfold.
A widening of the gap in life expectancy between those from higher and lower income households over the last eight years has been increasingly linked to post-2008 financial crisis austerity measures. As we begin to emerge from this crisis, any policies brought forward to protect and rebuild Scotland’s economy, enhance our public service resilience and strengthen social cohesion must put protecting the health, wellbeing and inclusion of some of our most vulnerable and marginalised groups first.
The response to COVID-19 has broken apart many of the accepted truths about how our economy, public services and society work and how they are structured in Scotland. These changes, and the shifts in perception and perspective that accompany them, mean that reshaping and rebuilding a more resilient, inclusive and empowered society in Scotland is within our grasp. Let’s build back better.
Inclusive, participatory, democratic
All too often the same groups and individuals can feel overlooked, disconnected and under-represented in our society. Despite good progress in Scotland in recent years towards greater codesign and inclusion in service design, this remains a persistent problem that can feel like an acceptable level of disenfranchisement in our public services. However, with an even greater number of the population facing economic hardship and insecurity, solutions such as increasing state benefits or the potential for ideas such as a universal basic income are now being seriously debated across the social and ideological spectrum.
Similarly, issues of mental health, digital exclusion, social isolation and loneliness have moved much more front and centre in our public discourse, service response and policy debates.
These issues are significant and long-standing, but too often the voices and experiences of those facing these difficulties, like the voices of those living in poverty, have not been properly incorporated, embraced or acted upon. These voices and perspectives must no longer be sidelined as we rebuild. We must look to new models of citizen engagement and democractic participation. Harnessing the opportunities that new technologies bring, but also finding effective ways for people to connect and create together, in person and in their communities. When we begin to build back in Scotland, we must do so in a way that creates space and hope and gives people the time and freedom to share in positive visions for our collective future.
Complex and connected
Just as we must listen to all perspectives, we need to acknowledge the complexity of society and the ways in which people, services, sectors and issues interact and relate. The pandemic has highlighted that our public health, education, clinical care, criminal justice systems, local economies and third sector organisations are all deeply interconnected. There are few health problems that are not also social problems. There are few economic issues that are not also issues of connectivity, education and skills.
We can acknowledge this and move away from siloed thinking about how our social policies and service delivery models are devised, structured, implemented and funded. Scotland’s National Performance Framework (NPF) provides an excellent starting point as an interconnected model of values, outcomes and indicators that could be the driving force of this change. But it will need a political willingness to move away from traditional top-down operating models and central funding, to better embrace ground-up, community-led change and allowing more localised empowerment and responses to local challenges.
Better informed with open data
One of the keys to designing and implementing policies and systems for a complex and connected society will be the right data and the right information.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for robust, verified and open data to help inform decisions, government communications and public engagement. Again, this is an area where Scotland could lead the way.
As a small nation with a large public sector and strong set of shared public policy priorities, Scotland could be pioneers at delivering interconnected open and real-time public service data. Great progress has already been made in areas such as the Edinburgh City Deal focus on Data Driven Innovation and at a social policy level in linking homelessness and health data in Scotland. These initiatives can be further mainstreamed into our approach to public service design and delivery and consideration should turn to how we might create shared data regions in Scotland for key public services that cut across traditional operating siloes. Even at an individual level, this is something that would appear to have strong support from the public in Scotland, with 62 per cent of people recently saying they would be willing to share their personal data to help drive social change and innovation.
Finance for impact
The fiscal challenges facing Scotland in the years ahead will be the most significant in generations. Central budgets will be reduced across the board. As such, we will need to think differently about how we allocate resources and the framework we use to support this. There are strong mechanisms already in place to support this in Scotland, including the government’s National Performance Framework and it’s associated indicators, the newly created Scottish National Investment Bank with its mission to deliver patient, mission-led capital for infrastructure and businesses, and the established political ambition of moving towards a Wellbeing Economy Model in Scotland.
We can enhance these strategic moves with operational shifts toward more blended and repayable finance models which support shared outcomes. It will also be increasingly important to adopt well-evidenced finance for impact models to help break down traditional departmental siloed funding. There is no denying these kinds of fiscal changes won’t be easy - either operationally or politically. They will require the challenging of assumptions and potential structural reform to our cluttered, fragmented and inconsistent landscape of public service delivery in Scotland.
Alongside the right kind of data, existing and emerging technology can and should be better used by both communities and public services to help build a more inclusive society. The social distancing measures currently in place have demonstrated the strength of community bonds across the country with people increasingly supporting each other through technology in these extraordinary times. Again, Scotland has an excellent foundation to build on via the established programme of work of the Local Government Digital Office which is seeking to drive digital transformation of service delivery across Scotland’s 32 local authorities.
As we emerge from this situation, we should test and invest in collaborative platforms and technology which can help local people to build on this community cohesion. Programmes like ShareLab Scotland have demonstrated the potential for trusted community groups to use technology both to build vibrant and collaborative local economies in Scotland and to think differently about how we can collaborate through technologies to address local social needs.
Digital skills and lifelong learning
Technology can also be part of the way we rebuild - and rebalance - the workforce. Concerns about automation and the growing role of technology in the workplace are valid and won’t disappear in the post-COVID-19 world.
But research shows that trends in automation place a higher value on the very human skills needed for caring roles where technology complements the emotional and empathetic skills of people.
With the shake up of both education and employment in the wake of this pandemic, Scotland should embrace the chance to look at how we reskill our workforce and retool our economy to focus on those skills that cannot be automated - human skills such as effective teamwork, empathy, judgement and decision making.
One of humanity's great and enduring qualities is our ability to adapt and overcome. In the urgency of responding to the immediate public health crisis of COVID-19, we have seen a phenomenal effort to adapt from across the public sector, businesses, social enterprises and civil society in Scotland. As we begin to think about how we will rebuild and recover, in both social and economic terms, we should pause and consider how a situation born out of crisis may allow us to build back in a way that plays to our strengths in Scotland with greater resilience, insight and engagement in our systems. It is these building blocks that may, in turn, allow for us to make real progress in tackling some of the persistent social and economic challenges that we have failed to meaningfully move the needle on in recent years.