Despite proof of steady improvement, the DCLG is drafting an action plan to tackle underperformance
“The truth is that councils are delivering more and more, and are backed by more resources from central government.”
“The majority of councils are delivering a high level of services to local people.”
“Councils’ excellent performance is yet more evidence of the need for the government to loosen the reins of central control and give councils greater freedom to focus on developing better services and making peoples’ lives better.”
These three glowing compliments to the steady improvement of local councils from the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG), the Audit Commission and the Local Government Association respectively were all given last month when the annual comprehensive performance assessment scores were published. The results showed yet another year of steady improvement and more importantly no councils failing to meet minimum requirements.
Great news. So why is DCLG in the process of producing a lengthy and elaborate action plan to deal with sluggish local authorities and their partners?
Last week, LGC revealed details of a draft document showing a range of options for dealing with underperformance towards local area agreements. Most controversial is the option for any one of a number of secretaries of state to issue ‘improvement notices’ wherever a local strategic partnership is judged to be underperforming. It will either be directed at an individual partner or an LSP as a whole. The options even extend as far as those secretaries of state taking control in a number of service areas to direct specific actions to be taken.
Unsurprisingly, the plans have sparked genuine fury in local government. “There are very strong ‘slave/master’ undertones to this plan,” one leading chief executive said. Another confided: “There are now a lot of people across the local government sector saying this does not add up.”
The document highlights just how nervous Whitehall is about surrendering power to the local level. Ever since the publication of the last local government white paper in late 2006, officials and ministers at DCLG have talked endlessly about the power of the new ‘area-based’ approach to the delivery of public services and of the central, ‘first among equals’ role of councils in doing so.
The focus will switch from the performance of individual service areas and departments to one considering the results members of the public experience from those bodies and departments working together in partnership. The corollary of this new approach (see box) is that Whitehall will take an increasingly hands-off approach in the way it micromanages local performance in achieving central government priorities on issues such as fighting obesity and antisocial behaviour.
For the most part local government took ministers at their word.
The plans currently being circulated among a select few would appear to be a return to the bad old days of mistrust, low expectation and central interference.
As Paul Downie, deputy director of the local strategic partnerships and performance unit at DCLG, told LGC’s improvement and efficiency conference last week, the focus on underperformance is the price to be paid for the new, supposedly ‘light-touch’ system.
“It’s important that we have a strong story about underperformance,” he said. “It was part of the deal we had to make as part of move towards the new performance framework. We are asking departments to have a smaller focus, so the performance of those need to be tracked. We have to identify as early as we can the places that have difficulties and have a robust means of addressing those.”
But the authoritarian plans for dealing with underperformance also demonstrate just how inadequate the current assessment system is and how well it can hide public dissatisfaction with local government.
Come 2009, when the comprehensive area assessment (CAA) is due to kick in, a number of four-star councils who have comfortably been sat at the top of the performance tree could be in for a rude awakening.
Councils, which have secured top scores for their adult social care services by concentrating their resources on an ever-decreasing number of people, could find themselves much more harshly judged when the assessment becomes based on the satisfaction of older people with the services on offer to them in general.
This is reasonable enough, so what is it that has got the chief executives’ backs up?
For a start, such a draconian threat of intervention is likely to have a detrimental effect on the ongoing negotiations to agree the 35 targets for each LAA. With the promise of an ignominious intervention from any of a number of secretaries of state as a reward for underperformance, how many councils will feel encouraged to pursue ambitious, stretching targets?
Perhaps more importantly, the plan would appear to undermine not only the notion that the local government sector is being empowered to take responsibility for its own improvement (the document outlines the role of regional improvement and efficiency partnerships as merely the first stage of an elaborate intervention mechanism), but also the authority of the CAA as the mechanism through which councils and local partnerships are judged.
For example, the draft plan seen by LGC shows government offices (GOs Whitehall departments’ ambassadors in the regions) will effectively have carte blanche to identify and take action against poorly performing areas wherever they see fit. But CAA is supposed to be the measure of how well an LSP is performing on its LAA. With plenty of confusion still surrounding how the CAA will actually work, who would now doubt that the GOs are the bodies whose opinions count?
The sad thing is that those same people in the local government family are quite happy to sign up to a more holistic method of measuring performance. But the document shows the extent to which they will have to battle against not only their local partners but also their Whitehall paymasters to make the new arrangements work.
Organisations such as the New Local Government Network (NLGN) think tank argue areas as a whole would perform better if the government were to trial pilot studies where councils are given greater control over their police and health partners. Extending councils’ democratic oversight of public services across an area should also help, NLGN claims.
Of more immediate practical benefit could be following the line preached by pollster Ben Page, chair of the Ipsos MORI social research institute. He claims councils need to take a much more professional attitude to their communications strategy and corporate reputation. If, as a council, you are going to be judged according to what your residents think of the area in which they live, why not make a song and dance about how you contribute to the best things about it?
One thing is for sure, if councils are going to have to focus their attention on their residents as never before, they can rest assured the gaze of Whitehall and its regional heralds will be focusing on them just as intently.
Indicators: measuring public response
The foundation stone of the new local government performance and assessment framework is the list of 198 indicators data sets councils will measure on behalf of central government. These indicators feed into both the local area agreements the agreements councils and their partners will reach on 35 of those indicators and the comprehensive area assessment (CAA), through which the success of these agreements is supposed to be measured.
Twenty of the indicators will be drawn from the new ‘place survey’ on which the Department for Communities & Local Government recently consulted. Whereas previous satisfaction surveys concentrated purely on local authority performance, the place survey will gauge residents’ opinions on a range of services and local issues within the area in which they live as a whole. Furthermore, it will also feed directly into an area’s CAA judgment.
The wording of the survey proposed by DCLG has enraged the Local Government Association, which in its response to the consultation claims the survey will only elicit negative responses in its current form. Indeed it would be hard not to feel sorry for a council subject to an improvement notice on the back of poor performance in a satisfaction survey designed by the government that was only ever going to yield negative responses.
Lastly, when it comes to improvement, regional improvement and efficiency partnerships (RIEPs) have been created to empower the local government sector to take responsibility for its own poor performance. The idea is that where a council is underperforming, the RIEP will identify this and co-ordinate peer support to help turn things around.