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The first round of comprehensive performance assessments provoked an unprecedented spate of rowing and controversy,...
The first round of comprehensive performance assessments provoked an unprecedented spate of rowing and controversy, but a few months later it had all died down. Even critics conceded the initial results were a first, albeit rather ropey, step towards a more forensic approach to council performance.

Unfortunately for the Audit Commission, which has only just recovered from the heat it encountered over the first round, the row seems to be about to start all over again.

A new phase of CPA is about to begin, as outlined in the commission's consultation document CPA: the next steps (LGC, 4 April). This looks at the immediate next steps for this year's round for top-tier council CPAs, but also at a brand new methodology for 2006.

This year's CPA will be based around service inspections. Only those which would move up a category were it not for their corporate capacity scores will undergo a second corporate assessment.

What the commission has not emphasised, and which has caused outrage in some quarters, is that to move up a category councils will have to score more than just the number of points required - they will have to demonstrate 'significant improvement'.

What should be like a ladder is in fact more like a game of snakes and ladders, or a ladder whose rungs mysteriously expand and contract.

Haringey LBC chief executive David Warwick warns one council could have more points than another, yet be in a lower category: 'You could get people a long way out. If you've got a certain number of points you should move into the next category.'

He adds: 'The commission did a presentation to the 'weak' authorities and got slaughtered on the basis of this. It's just mad. I suspect that may have influenced the way in which it was actually launched.'

The Local Government Association is also concerned and warns the approach will create 'stagnation'.

Yet not everybody in local government is critical. Dudley MBC head of policy Geoff Thomas does not feel the 'significant improvement' requirement is a problem. He suggests that 'if you aspire to be just one point better than you were before' you are not really trying to improve.

CPA team member at the commission Peter Stachniewski admits it is possible for one council to have more points than another yet remain in a lower category. This, he explains, is because councils which neither improve nor get worse will not, under existing proposals, be penalised by being downgraded.

He says: 'It is a dilemma between requiring improvement to go forwards but not reining people back if they haven't moved.'

The other aspect of the 'next steps' for CPA is a brand new methodology for 2006. At first glance it appears much more ambitious and wide ranging.

The consultation paper adds the approach will 'seek to understand the impact of the council in its locality, looking beyond institutional boundaries to understand the leverage, co-ordination and leadership a council provides to achieve a wider improvement agenda'.

Mr Warwick welcomes these objectives, but warns such good intentions could founder if the process is as fluid and changeable as it was in 2002.

He says: 'I'm a supporter of the CPA.

But you need to have a level playing field for people to have confidence. If the plan is being made up as it goes along you don't have confidence in the system.

'[Some] authorities are taking the view, do we have to play this game at all, is it relevant? People are asking what sanctions have people got against you if you misbehave. Some people think the sanctions are not worth worrying about and we'll just carry on doing our own sweet thing.

'The Audit Commission needs to deliver the methodology in consultation with us quickly so that everybody knows what the rules are.'

Mr Stachniewski insists there will be enough discussion to make any changes palatable: 'We will be consulting all along. [The methodology and assessment] will be fixed following consultation with authorities. There may be changes, but any changes we make would be in consultation wit h authorities.'

He adds: 'It's important people recognise that we're doing this openly, and that there are benefits to authorities through the CPA which are coming through and will continue to come through.'

Consultation is clearly vital to the credibility of the assessments. What is clear is that not every council has bowed its head in resignation to the audit and inspection yoke, and the commission has got to find a way of getting through to these councils.

Objectives for CPA

--A better reflection of citizen experience

--Full recognition of the 'shared priorities' agreed by the central/local partnership

--The influence and impact of councils as community leaders, in partnership with others

--A balance between measuring performance against local and national priorities

--Alignment with existing performance frameworks

--The impact of deprivation, diversity and spending

--Cost effectiveness and value for money.

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