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Principles Index . Briefings Home . Revitalise Our Services Index

PrinciplesPrinciples to Revitalise Scotland's Public Services

Public Service Networks


In April 2003 UNISON Scotland launched its manifesto for Scotland's public services, Revitalise our Public Services. The centrepiece of that manifesto was our principles for public service renewal. In this series of briefings we expand on these principles setting out our positive agenda for the revitalisation of Scotland's essential public services.

What are Public Service Networks (PSN)?

PSNs are essentially an agreement between public service providers to work jointly on a project usually by pooling resources and working to a common action plan. They differ from the much-hyped use of the word "partnerships" which is often used to disguise the privatisation of public services. PSNs do not substitute or replace the role of public services or attempt to hide a loss of capacity.

In a changing environment networks are a more rapid and effective method of responding to change than constant boundary reviews and statutory reorganisation. PSNs can also bring together the fragmentation of services brought about by privatisation and the growth of un-elected public bodies. They offer co-operation not competition and the opportunity to make effective use of ICT and economies of scale without centralised control. While public bodies can engage in networks that involve various organisations, the prime focus should be in forging networks of Public Service Organisations (PSOs).

The overall aim is to encourage a spirit of co-operation, communication and mutual support across Scotland's public services. A concept severely damaged by the introduction of market forces to our public services.

Why Public Service Networks (PSN)?

Public Service Organisations increasingly need to collaborate and work jointly to provide public services. This has already led to partnership working, recognising that many problems require a multi-agency solution.

In a relatively small country like Scotland PSOs are often organised on a smaller scale to ensure local responsiveness and accountability. This means that they may lack the scale too effectively deliver some services. This in turn leads to calls for reorganisation into larger less responsive units, boundary changes or the privatisation of some services.

The perceived need to respond to public policy concerns often leads governments to the conclusion that to be seen to be taking action requires the establishment of a new body or the centralisation of a service. This brings the service closer to the minister responsible but further from the service user. This is well illustrated by the growth of the un-elected quango state, often at the expense of democratically elected local councils. The latest example in ‘Partnership for a Better Scotland' is the proposed single agency to deliver custodial and non-custodial sentences. A knee jerk reaction to public concern over crime.

How are Public Service Networks Organised?

PSN's require comprehensive agreements that cover strategic objectives, shared vision and priorities, resource commitments, responsibilities and overall control and management. The key elements include:

  • Responsibilities for delivering specific services.
  • Financial controls, investment, budgets and the allocation of risk
  • Agreed performance standards, accountability and action plans.
  • The application of different organisations' policies and procedures.
  • Provisions for the terms and conditions of staff.
  • Arrangements for the active involvement of users, community representatives and trade unions. This includes representation on joint boards and the capacity to participate.
  • Appropriate access to specialist advice and services when these cannot be sourced in-house.
  • Conditions for the termination of the PSN.

The key driver of a PSN is the needs of the service and the user. Unlike Public Private Partnerships which are driven by the requirements of markets and private companies.

The Advantages of Public Service Networks

The main advantages of PSN's are:

  • Avoiding major boundary change and constant reorganisation in response to changing service needs. A typical public service reorganisation results in at least four years disruption to the service.
  • Providing a quick and effective response to service change.
  • Taking advantage of economies of scale particularly in purchasing.
  • Enabling the provision of effective common services across PSO boundaries.

Most importantly, PSNs retain the public service ethos in delivering public services across sectors and fits in with other key principles of public service renewal.

Public Service Networks in Action

A number of current joint working initiatives have the potential to be developed into effective Public Service Networks. The largest is Joint Future facilitating community care between health and local government. On a smaller scale Clinically Managed Networks in the NHSiS. The common services approach in health and police are examples of the economies of scale gained by networking across Scotland. All of these examples have had their problems largely because they have had to operate within the legacy of a market approach to public services or they have not fully organised as PSNs in the way described above. The future potential for PSN's is considerable.


Public Service Networks provide a real opportunity to change the culture of Scotland's public services from a narrow competitive approach to one were co-operation is the norm. Responding quickly to the need for service change whilst developing a genuine involvement of staff and service users.



Lisa Manus -

Dave Watson -

@ The P&I Team
14 West Campbell St
Glasgow G26RX
Tel 0845 355 0845
Fax 0141-307 2572






UNISONScotland 2003
Published by UNISONScotland,
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