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Best value has proved more of a test for IT teams than expected, says John Serle ...
Best value has proved more of a test for IT teams than expected, says John Serle

When the former local government minister Hilary Armstrong first set out the government's intention to replace CCT with the best value regime, she was adamant it would not be a soft option. But has the reality lived up to the expectation?

During the pilot phase of best value, we saw considerable innovation. But the academic institutes engaged to monitor these experiments began to identify a number of flaws in the underlying logic. The continuous improvement rational was predicated on a commercial model, the logic of which did not hold true for public services. The capacity of the councils was limited and most of it was tied up just delivering a basic service leaving little capability to devote to modernisation. The gap between the worst council and the best was so large that the idea of closing it was unrealistic. It was like asking a football club from the third division to play in the Premier league and win.

When the legislation finally appeared it was clear the government was not going to leave the delivery of its agenda to chance. The Local Government Act 1999 and the supporting statutory guidance were more prescriptive and directive than councils would have wished. It was now clear what Ms Armstrong meant when she said it was not a soft option.

Despite the best efforts of the Society of IT Managment, IT departments have struggled to meet the challenging targets set out in the best value system. It is not surprising there has been disappointment at the results of early inspections of IT services with 66% rated as fair.

The Audit Commission sets standards for best value according to three main criteria:

-- Are the council's aims clear and challenging?

-- Does the service meet the aims?

-- How does the performance compare?

The evidence to date suggests many councils have weaknesses in all three areas. Councils do not always have clear aims, the IT service therefore lacks focus and although authorities are now comparing performance, they are often not learning from this information or addressing weaknesses. Heads of IT will be familiar with these observations - they reflect views often expressed in IT Trends over many years. However is this a criticism of the service or a comment on the corporate policy?

Logic might suggest the best-performing councils should set the standard for the rest to aspire to, sharing knowledge and leadership. However this does not appear to be the case. Only a tiny number of councils achieve excellent performance and so far none in published reports on IT. Is the inspectorate judging a council's performance against some unpublished ideal standard? Was this the intention of the legislation? If government had wanted all councils to conform to a norm why did they not say so?

The facts are that, over the past 16 years, council IT departments have become more professional and continuously delivered better value . Major initiatives and changes have been adsorbed and dealt with effectively.

The idea public services can and must strive to improve is a good one. But due regard must be paid to the resources available. Clearly, the process could be accelerated, but this may distort local priorities and undermine local democracy. It might also require - as the government has discovered elsewhere in the public service - greater injection of cash to deliver the ideal standard.

The question - is it possible to close the gap between the worst and the best and deliver best value - remains unanswered?

This is not just a question of money. It relies upon leadership and vision and the capacity to turn ideas into action. Some of these concepts are embraced in the new local government white paper Strong local leadership - quality public services. Easy to say but harder to achieve. In the meantime councils are judged against an ideal without being given the freedom to deliver.

John Serle

Chair, best value group, Society of IT Management

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