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Battle over indicators

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Local government defends its freedoms as quangos push for targets

Local government is squaring up for a battle with government agencies and quangos to defend its newly won freedom from the burden of performance indicators.

The Electoral Commission this week announced it intends to introduce its own suite of performance indicators to monitor councils' performance when running elections.News of its consultation comes four days after the Department for Communities & Local Government published a new, slimmed-down performance framework of 198 indicators.

The consultation is an embarrassing blow to communities and local government secretary Hazel Blears, who last week promised she would guard against the imposition of extra targets "through the back door".

There are also fears other quangos are considering similar approaches. Outgoing regeneration agency English Partnerships confirmed it is developing a set of long-term performance indicators for councils to monitor the effect of its projects on the quality of life in local communities.

And the Youth Justice Board last month sent out letters calling on all councils to include measures relating to offending and re-offending rates among young people in their local area agreements.

Rachel Gapp, head of policy and performance at the Lifting the Burdens Taskforce, said the Electoral Commission's proposals are "completely out of line with the spirit of the local government white paper".

"The proposed indicators go into such minutiae of detail that it really goes against the grain of the concept of moving away from the micromanagement of council performance," she said.

The Electoral Commission has put forward 13 indicators for consultation which would require electoral officers and chief returning officers to provide information on everything from the language used on ballot packs to the way polling stations are organised.

Amelia Cookson, head of the Local Government Information Unit's Centre for Service Transformation, said the consultation "made the government look incredibly foolish".

"This is exactly what local government is afraid of. Central government is so un-joined-up it is impossible forWhitehallto keep a rein on these enthusiastic bursts of regulation making," she said. "Who are the national policy makers who failed to notice the Electoral Commission drawing up these indicators?"

Speaking at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers' annual conference last week, Ms Blears was unequivocal that LAAs and the national indicator set would be the only form of performance management.

"I want to be clear that there's no scope forWhitehallsneaking in targets through the back door," she said. "There will be a tendency to sneak some through and I'll keep my eye on this."

Asked about the Youth Justice Board letter, Ms Blears said: "I cannot prevent my colleagues from lobbying. They care passionately about services. But we don't want controls through the back door - I'm determined about that."

Cheryl Miller, chief executive of East Sussex CC, said: "My anxiety is that we'll get a series of letters from all government departments. Will we be able to keep central government to its part of the deal?"

A DCLG spokesman said: "We are exploring further with independent bodies such as the Electoral Commission and local government stakeholders how this new central-local relationship and performance framework can be achieved."

Proposed targets

  • The Electoral Commission is introducing a set of 13 indicators for chief returning officers, including: information in postal ballot packs and how close to polling day packs are issued

  • Regeneration agency English Partnerships is developing a set of 'long-term performance indicators' to measure the benefits of regeneration on local quality of life

  • The Youth Justice Board is lobbying councils to include performance indicators on youth offending and re-offending rates as targets in local area agreement

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