Best value inspection is dedicated to improving services for local people.
Speaking as we find, however challenging, is at the heart of making this happen. So too is motivating, inspiring and persuading councils to grasp the need and opportunity to do better. So it is disappointing when councils express worries about best value, and doubly so when they try to give themselves a red card at the start of the game. It is just too soon to reach for ideological hyperbole.
Like Chris Duffield (LGC, December 15), I am happy to admit that there is scope for improvement in the inspection process. Over 400 councils have started over 4,000 best value reviews in the first years of best value. The inspection service has to date published reports on 30 of them.
We know that we will get better as we develop our skills, build experience and refine our approach. We use independent researchers to get feedback from every council we inspect to learn what works and what we can improve. Chris has spared them a phone call by publishing his reply in your pages.
Ambitious councils will, of course, be disappointed when we award the service one star - they really want to be a three-star service. Equally, ambitious councils will be pleased when we judge them likely to improve. But their disappointment cannot be evidence for changing the score. Nor is it any reason to be demoralised or disillusioned. An honest assessment of how things are now is the only firm foundation for a better future.
Our approach is to be open and constructive in our discussions, and clear and consistent about our conclusions. Our report on Bexley's IT services will be published this month. I can confirm that our findings have been challenged and checked and that we have been happy to change the report where there was new evidence, or we had got things wrong.
We still conclude that a service with wide variations of standards, effectiveness and approach across the borough, and low levels of IT service in some key public services is fair rather than good. It can achieve more, and if the energy displayed in the inspection is sustained it ought to improve.
Councils can expect us to say something about their approach to best value as we report early inspections. We don't want conformity and bureaucracy, we want a review process that delivers for each and every council.
We want a process that is alive for everyone who works in local government, that is part and parcel of doing a good job and being a successful service. If you can count up separately the cost of your best value unit, or are doing things because you think it's what the inspectors want, then the real opportunity that best value offers is going begging.
Our analysis of best value reviews (A Step in the Right Direction, Audit Commission, October 2000) shows that councils are tackling the big issues --partnerships, crime, children's services -and are responding to public concerns - cleaner streets, better schools, safer roads. The effort of starting 4,000 reviews has been enormous and has strained councils' resources. Experienced councils are now focusing on fewer but broader reviews. Seeing bigger reviews through to real changes in the services the public receive will be easier, and more effective.
So, early days, early challenges, important learning for councils and for inspectors. We're staying in the room. Perhaps Christmas brought a little book of calm to help us through the months ahead.
Andrew Webster, London region best value inspector.