Spent a fascinating day in the 'Kingdom of Fife' last Friday as Chair of 'Mission Possible?', a conference examining the future of public services in Fife. For the unenlightened, Fife sits just north of Edinburgh, on the other side of the Firth of Forth. It contains a mix of legacy mining towns, such as Kirkcaldy and Leven, as well as posher parts such as St Andrews, alma mater of Will n' Kate.
I love going to other countries and getting a feel of their issues. Scotland's are similar to our own but in bold. Public spending is a bigger part of their economy (Fife Council is by far the biggest employer) and levels of business start-up are lower than in England. Coupled to that, Fife has to contend for investment with its better-known neighbours to the south, Glasgow and Edinbugh.
Which sets the scene for Friday's event, convened by 'Fife Partnership', a collaboration of all the public and voluntary sector bodies in the area, all, helpfully, contiguous - and aided by a decent history of working well together. Thanks to devolution, 'local' now matters in Scotland far more than in England, where localism is still in its birth-pangs. Councils like Fife have a general power of competency. It is both felt and appreciated. Indeed, the chances of a Holyrood Minister telling them how often to empty their bins is less up there, for sure.
To the event. It was kicked off by Cllr Peter Grant, the SNP leader of the council. I like the Nats. They have a style of their own which is a mixture of intelligent, pragmatic and modern. They just feel fresher and more vital than the standard-issue Scottish politicians that we are now so used to seeing.
He was followed by a deputy CEO Steve Grimmond, who began his career setting up co-ops in Dundee and, unusually for a senior local government officer, has an acute understanding of the limits of municipalism and the need to view resources as a whole, not just public money to be thrown, from high at society's problems. Steve is the kind of leader I think local government needs - he sees well beyond what is immediately in front of him.
After my speech was the highlight of the event. Occasionally, you stumble across a world-class speaker. One who lifts you, gets inside your brain, pulls out your heart and leaves the stage to prolonged applause.
The person in question was Sir Harry Burns, Chief Medical Officer for Scotland. Not a name familiar 'Down South', but an internationally recognised leader in public health. Burns' presentation compressed 40 years of learning into 40 short minutes.
Scots, he told us, do not suffer worse health only because of smoking, above-average drinking and deep-fried Mars Bars. Indeed, control for this and you still find Scots dying and and in poor health in far greater numbers than elsewhere in Europe. What is happening is that massive numbers of people, many young, are out of control, living kamikaze lives which lead, often, to suicide, alcoholism, serious mental illness and death.
Burns takes a decidedly non-medic view of health. He doesn't believe there's these two worlds, one of 'healthy people', the other of unhealthy'. He thinks we all flit in and out of good health all the time. What keeps us on the right side of health is a mixture of our habits, our relationships and our ability to cope with the world around us. People who are resilient can stay healthy more easily as their stress is kept in check and their lives stay in shape. The opposite is true of people whose life experiences have not protected them so that they can cope with life-events.
Scotland, he argues, has a lot of people whose early lives have not afforded them that protection. So they act-out, they become addicts or drunks, commit violent crime or at worst kill themselves. It is a fact that Scotland's suicide and murder rates make some of the rougher parts of London look like a playground.
The answer to Scotland's health problems, therefore, is not a health service based on treatment but a better, more nurturing society in which early care and support, in particular, is improved. The voluntary sector, he believes, has a vital role in developing the kind of supportive relationships which both protect people and reduce their risks to themselves and others.
Burns' quest for understanding led him to study the accounts of younger holocaust survivors. People taken in by strangers and adopted. Nearly 70% experienced extreme trauma as adults, with many experiencing profound mental health problems. But 30% didn't - and it was this 30% which is of interest. This group were those whose positive life-experiences since had afforded them greater protection from their early trauma. Something was protecting these people. It is this that we needed to recreate in our society.
This led to Burns' main point: that we need to take an asset-based view of people in general. Build on what's there, what's already good, not be forever seeking to treat the problem, like a surgeon excising a cancer. Our whole public investment is based on attacking these 'negatives', most of it doesn't work yet we persist. Even when we know other approaches, particularly the asset-based approaches to working with people championed by the voluntary sector are proven to work.
The action didn't stop there. Harry Burns was followed onstage by a leading Scottish police officer called Karyn McCluskey who is Head of Violence for Scotland, following a successful stint in the Met and other English forces. McCluskey, however, is not your standard copper. She trained as a nurse, is also a published academic and has a bit of the Louise Casey about her, in her impassioned, no-nonsense style.
She started by showing CCTV footage of a gang of hooded lads in Glasgow killing a man with a stab wound to the heart, then another of a man being macheted. The purpose was not, however, only to shock. It was to illustrate the limits to policing. She went on to explain how a community-based programme designed to create peer pressure of a different kind - community pressure - was reducing involvement in gangs.
This was heart-stopping stuff. The police work closely with the community on a scheme which brings gang members into close contact with the recently bereaved mother, of the man who will never work again due the 'Glasgow smile' carved by a machete into his face, like some kind of grotesque clown.
While this stuff cannot penetrate the hearts and minds of the most damaged, it has a huge effect on many and the 'Gang Amnesty' headed up by Karyn and her team - which offers immediate support- a team to go out - to gang members wanting an alternative, has been a success.
This was turning into the best event I had been to in a long time. And it wasn't over yet. Three local people spoke powerfully of how they had successfully mixed the resources within their communities with those of the state and other sectors and achieved powerful change.
Andrew Arbuckle told of how the community had taken disused brownfield land in his coastal town and created a new space which had transformed the fortunes of the area. Dr Margaret Hannah spoke about the Shine Project which has produced an entirely new form of support for older people, building, again, on their assets, networks and capabilities.
Finally, Josie Mitchell, a long-term resident of 'The Broom', one of the worst estates in Scotland 25 years ago, explained, movingly, how the residents there had formed up a housing association which now runs an estate which is a model of successful regeneration. Their very simple aim, now achieved, was to make the Broom a place where people wanted to come and live, not escape from.
Three golden threads ran through this event, which, by the way, put many of the London-based events I have been to of late to shame in terms of quality. The first was that where the state works successfully alongside people, rather than does-unto them, the results are transformative.
The second is that it is key, in an age of austerity, to create a strategy based on ALL of our assets - public, community, private, and then map these, AS ONE, onto our high level goals.
The third key message is that control and command in general - the modus operandi of most public organisations today, doesn't work and has to change.
That starts with politicians - and it has to start now.