How does best value affect council legal services? In working with three unitaries - Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool and Halton BCs - Rochdale MBC have been trying to provide a clear framework for benchmarking, leading to a Greater Manchester-wide exercise of benchmarking inside, and outside, local government.
We have tried to challenge assumptions and be innovative when examining how we deliver our services. We started by reviewing 12 diverse work areas, including: right to buy, preparation of planning and highways agreements, prosecutions in the magistrates courts and applications for emergency protection orders.
All participating councils received a questionnaire on each area. We circulated the results and will be identifying areas of good practice and areas for improvement.
There were some ambiguities in the questionnaire format and we felt what we were trying to do had not been understood, so we decided to issue guidance with the questionnaire to overcome the problem.
We then looked in detail at three different areas of practice - quality control systems, case management and time-recording IT systems, and in-house customer care - and we compared our charges and quality of service with private practice.
We considered how we could work together using the strengths and opportunities of our own services. We now have an e-mail distribution list, so information can be shared immediately, and we are setting up a joint training programme using the strengths of different trainers within each council. We have looked at using the same systems and software and sharing the costs, sharing staffing resources or having joint arrangements.
The group has discussed the issue of comparative information and has drafted sets of performance indicators, targets, benchmarking measures and general statements of good practice.
These drafts were fed into the May meeting of the joint benchmarking group, comprising representatives of the Association of Council Secretaries and Solicitors and the Law Society's Local Government Group, to update regional groups and try to identify suitable performance indicators.
The information we have gathered is helping us meet the challenges of fundamentally reviewing our services to achieve best value and the changing requirements of those who use our services.
By considering the lessons learnt so far from the process of benchmarking legal work, we have been continually improving how we have carried out that process. The overall conclusion is that benchmarking is worthwhile.
So, 12 months on, we have made good progress - but there is still a lot to be done.
By Rochdale MBC borough solicitor, Bill Lawley.