The NHS in Scotland should serve as a role model for reform for the public sector, a study has claimed.

According to the findings of a two-year report, post-devolution healthcare in Scotland represents a “groundbreaking” approach to industrial relations.

It has taken “arguably the most ambitious labour-management partnership so far attempted in the UK public sector” and made it work, research co-author Dr Peter Samuel said.

Academics from Nottingham University Business School studied NHS Scotland and NHS Wales as part of the work.

NHS Scotland has developed partnership agreements at national and board level as part of a strategy to engage staff in improving services.

Dr Samuel said: “We could not believe it - it is an incredibly intricate structure in Scotland. We had no idea Scotland was this advanced.

“Wales has a similar structure, but it has not been going as long and is catching up with Scotland.

“It’s astonishing this has not been studied before.

“Although partnerships are found elsewhere in the public sector, NHS Scotland’s stands out as distinct and novel.

“It is well-known that in NHS England, after devolution in Scotland and Wales, it increased its reliance on a market-based approach in the way it operates as an organisation. It is travelling in a different direction to Scotland and Wales.”

Dr Samuel said the result of NHS Scotland’s structure was an “incredible common agenda” among interested parties and it offered “valuable lessons in how to improve industrial relations”.

“Anyone wanting to understand how government, employers and staff should work together to deal with strategic and organisational challenges can learn from it,” he added.

“The policymakers of NHS Scotland clearly concluded the only way to deliver better healthcare was to improve the way staff were engaged.

“This led to the establishment of various structures at national and local levels to give staff more say in decisions affecting their working lives and healthcare provision.

“NHS Scotland has even passed into law a ‘staff governance code’ that compels all its health boards to engage and involve staff and their representatives.

“This innovation in industrial relations is arguably one of the biggest examples of industrial democracy to be found anywhere in the world - and they have made it work.”

  • Dr Peter Samuel’s presentation to the Social Partnership Forum that includes background information and other related data can be viewed here (PDF)
  • The study examined the frequency, scope, behaviour and who speaks at meetings
  • Among the forums associated with NHS Scotland’s partnership agreements are the Scottish Workforce and Staff Governance Committee and the Scottish Partnership Forum and Secretariat
  • Researchers attended forums and analysed published minutes from meetings held between 1999 and 2009 in NHS Scotland and meetings from 2004 in NHS Wales
  • The study praised the way NHS Scotland separated broad-ranging debates over strategic issues from detailed discussions over specific workplace policies
  • Dr Samuel also said the study found there was a near-absence of a “we’ve heard all this before” mentality and lack of repetition in Scotland
  • He said the SPF addressed more than 133 topics in a decade.