The Audit Commission's great fear concerning best value was always
We had a slide which summed up the problem. Entitled One Monday morning in Rutland . . . it showed a picture of Rutland's town hall with a queue of inspectors at the door.
The commission worried the multiplication of inspections would bring them into disrepute.
Certainly, many local government officers feel best value has become an exercise in audit trail production. Yet the recent report on the pilots showed it had been, and could be, a powerful force for change. What has happened to sour people's views and what can be done to restore credibility?
In the commission's original inspection methodology, we built in the concept that inspections should be 'proportionate to risk'. Forty-nine per cent of council services are already 'better than average'. A risk-based approach to tackling the worst 25% allows performance to be improved four-fold - if resources are spent on the better performers, gains will be marginal.
Moreover, inspectors cannot improve anything, only managers and politicians can. Where failure is extreme, systematic and ingrained, it is due to a failure of vision, purpose and leadership. Fortunately, such failure is rare and identification is not normally complex. Where it exists, an in-depth inspection of the crematoria service, for example, will not put things right.
So why not remove automatic best value inspections and replace them with a regime where reviews are quick and desk-based? A day's read of the review report, data analysis of performance indicators and a review of performance against CIPFA statistics - which should be made compulsory - would provide enough information to assess the risk. Resources and effort could be saved for the handful of councils with severe political and managerial problems.
For 'problem' councils, a continuum of intervention could be derived. At the lowest level there could be diagnostic consultancy designed to derive an action plan. Where there are problems with councillor/officer relations, group work and training could be provided. Finally, if a council failed to respond, the secretary of state could have powers to remove officers or debar councillors from holding office.
For the remaining councils, best value could be used flexibly to address managers' and members' priorities. These councils would then be saved inspection bills. If a council showed continuous improvement it would get more funds and powers. If it failed to improve, capital starvation would, inevitably, lead to the 'Ridley-isation' of the council - the once a year meeting to sign off the contracts for all services. Routine in-depth inspection of best value reviews could end.
For the moment, the best approach is to talk early and often with your inspector. Many councils have been misled into believing inspectors are only interested in a process and an audit trail. This isonly part of the story. If your council estates look like a war zone, your streets covered with litter and your residents up in arms, a good audit trail will not
-Paul Orrett, associate director, policy and modernisation, The Capita Group.