But has the Audit Commission passed its peak? The existence of comprehensive performance assessment, the most gruelling inspection regime yet, would seem to suggest otherwise. A highly complex, holistic ranking for all councils in England, CPA seems more than enough to keep the commission busy.
But this could be deceptive. Outgoing director of inspection, Paul Kirby, who put CPA together, believes it should be the high watermark of inspection which should later be scaled down for good as audit and performance management moves in to a new phase.
In this scenario, the improved information provided by CPA should allow government to back off, leaving the best and worst councils in particular with more time to get on with pursuing good performance.
He said people inside the commission - including Mr Kirby - had argued for a fast timetable: 'It's whether government gets involved, whether departments mobilise to bring into play all of this.'
If CPA goes wrong, the commission is likely to have more time on its hands for another reason. It will not be seen to have learned from its mistakes on best value, and will lose face. Clive Bone, of the Institute of Value Management, said the government, but also the Audit Commission, had 'mucked up' best value.
He said: 'Both of them between them did not research the subject enough to realise it was an established body of knowledge. They did not research it and, when you
went to meetings with the Cabinet
Office, Treasury, DETR and Audit Commission, you just found there was a culture of
Bearing in mind that the Audit Commission has already lost responsibilities to the Commission for Health Improvement, will lose more to two new health and social care inspectorates, and may lose housing to the Housing Corporation, it could find itself very much in the background. If it is on the verge of a decline, this might signal a commensurate easing of pressure on over-inspected councils.
But there are a number of reasons why this might not happen. The commission is not the only inspectorate around and there is no telling what the respective departments and their ministers want of the Social Services Inspectorate or Ofsted.
Plus, as Local Government Association chief executive Sir Brian Briscoe observed, CPA has created many new excuses for government to 'measure, inspect and intervene', all of which the commission remains intimately involved with.
Second, where does an army of best value and CPA inspectors go? Mr Kirby, who at one point in his career restructured his own job out of existence, thinks there is institutional inertia and this army is not needed. A simple answer would be for them to go into improvement and capacity building. But would it be satisfactory?
Mr O'Brien said it was vital that the line between improvement and inspection was not blurred, so people inspected the results of their own support. However, inspectors certainly had skills which could be transferred to improvement, and vice versa.
So what happens to a pared down Audit Commission? Calls for a more rational approach to inspection have been made for years as more and more of politicians' and officers' time is taken up with it. It was about this time last year that talk began in earnest about risk-based inspection. Such an approach would need proper co-ordination, something the CPA could be seen as a dry run at. The future of the Audit Commission could be as inspection's very own strategic authority. This could be excellent news