Described by Improvement & Development Agency executive director Mel Usher as a 'stick of dynamite', it will separate
councils according to their global success or failure; potentially demoralising staff and demolishing careers in its wake.
The job of conducting this assessment - categorising councils as high performers, strivers, coasters or poor performers - goes to the Audit Commission. Local government secretary Stephen Byers has made great play of staying out of this messy area.
But how is the commission going to synthesise this information? It is hard to imagine what kind of sausage grinder will be able to transform such disparate data into a convincing, transparent verdict accepted by all.
The commission will first make a judgment on each individual service before coming to an overall verdict. The entire list of judgments, including the evidence, will be made available to the council.
How exactly it will get from the first set of judgments to the second is the $64,000 question. The commission is in talks with other inspectorates about this, and acting head of inspection Paul Kirby says it is far from obvious which services will have the heaviest weighting.
'Education and social care are clearly big spenders, but we would want to recognise that housing is very important to tenants,' he says.
The commission will ask where councils have the greatest impact. For example, in education most of the budget is managed by schools so, despite its importance, it may not carry so much weight. According to this logic, social services will be a crucial factor.
Some adjustment to reflect deprivation is on the cards, but the commission does
not place great emphasis on this. It has
found poverty only affects three indicators - school assessment, user satisfaction and council tax.
A key question is how likely each council is to get better. Ministers want the system to encourage improvement, and to see councils moving up through the categories.
Mr Kirby says the commission will look beneath the surface, 'not just at what people's intentions or plans are, but also how well proven that capacity is. Are they
looking at all of their options in terms of
competition, are they able to challenge
Under the framework all councils will draw up an action plan - the lower performers with the help of the Audit Commission - which will set out a bespoke inspection programme. This will be considerably lighter for high performers and coasters.
Mr Kirby concedes: 'It's important we take everybody with us. The assessment approach is going to have to command
people's confidence. That's why we're
committed to doing this carefully.'
Nonetheless, the grading will not be a soft-touch exercise. Improvement prospects are key, but councils will be judged on their absolute success or failure.
'If you don't you run the risk of saying your council is doing really well when actually the services aren't very good [or vice versa],' says Mr Kirby.
But he is confident about the task facing the commission: 'This isn't an entirely new activity for the Audit Commission. It is a already taking a rounded view. This makes it more explicit.'
This is far from a consensus view. Institute of Local Government Studies director Sir Michael Lyons warns the science behind inspection is simply not sophisticated enough to produce accurate overall judgments.
He says: 'You're back to comparing people against some notion of an absolute value which doesn't exist.'
Nor should the impact of deprivation be underestimated. 'It does seem pretty clear that authorities which are dealing with the most complex problems are not among the highest performers,' he says.
'The impact of inspection has not yet been evaluated. I understand the Audit Commission itself, in trying to show the impact of intervention, is having trouble showing positive things.
'The literature suggests we can't tell the difference between the good and bad authorities and we shouldn't be so confident we can. Actually we don't have all the science.'
Instead, inspections should focus on the question of whether a council understands its weaknesses and has the systems in place to improve.
If the assessment works, it will be a tool of unprecedented usefulness. Moreover, if the poor performer category empties out within a few years this could go some way to restoring the prestige of the local government sector. But there is a real fear the framework will be used as a rod with which to beat local government.
A long period of consultation on the
comprehensive performance assessment framework will now take place. It seems local government will, as usual, need to push for recognition of its complexity as a sector and the diversity within its ranks.