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FEATURES - CHANGING FOR THE BETTER

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Despite the recent furore over Walsall and Coventry, the CPA is spurring councils on to higher achievement, says Fr...
Despite the recent furore over Walsall and Coventry, the CPA is spurring councils on to higher achievement, says Frances Done

Last week the Audit Commission's board met to discuss the robustness of the comprehensive performance assessment process. The commissioners did this in light of the position of two councils, Coventry City Council and Walsall MBC, which have been unhappy with their scores this year.

The commissioners have reaffirmed their confidence and commitment to the CPA process. The reason is clear. CPA has achieved what no system of appraisal in local government has before - a dramatic and significantly increased focus by councillors and senior managers on the steps necessary to bring services up to the mark. As such it is a leading example of the practical impact of strategic regulation.

What is significant is that local government as a whole has grasped the rationale for CPA and has responded in a measured and mature way. There has been general acceptance of the fairness of the categorisation of 'excellent', 'good', 'fair', 'poor' or 'weak' given to individual councils.

The CPA process may not be perfect. Self-evidently, if you boil down the performance of a council into a one-word description, whether that is 'weak' or 'excellent', that cannot reflect every facet of what multi-purpose councils do.

No one would argue that 'excellent' councils have no failings. Equally, 'poor' authorities sometimes are beacons of excellence for particular services.

But all this does not mean that the methodology is flawed. The CPA judgements are measured and evidence-based and we believe unequivocally in the underlying robustness of the system.

It may be frustrating for councils such as Coventry and Walsall which narrowly miss out on climbing into a higher category, especially when they have achieved real improvement. But these comparatively few disputed cases each year serve to illustrate the power CPA has now acquired as a spur to councils for higher achievement.

The current CP A model is there for a reason. It provides accountability and transparency without unacceptable levels of inspection - and cost.

Councils know all this as they have been extensively consulted and there were few dissenting voices.

From the start, CPA was designed to focus attention on the importance of continuous improvement. It was for this reason that the Audit Commission decided last year that the standards required of a council in 2003 and 2004 to achieve each CPA rating would be increased over those set in 2002.

The commission did consult councils extensively about this proposal and a number of those consulted were opposed to the move, because they felt it would make comparisons between authorities more difficult.

The board of the commission considered these arguments very carefully before deciding that the overriding consideration should be the need for councils to demonstrate sustained improvement.

The reasons are compelling. CPA would start to lose its value as acatalyst for improvement unless we raised the bar. Any effective system of assessment is dynamic, evolving over time, and it is in that context that comparisons between authorities are made.

Councils are improving and CPA is playing an important role in helping them deliver better services. We are pleased our recent consultation on our 2005 methodology received a highly positive response from local government, and this has helped us to develop CPA in a way that maximises its contribution to service improvement.

CPA is always a forward-looking process. In our 2005 methodology, we are making other changes to the assessment process - ones that are certain to find favour within local government. The Audit Commission had consulted on how corporate assessment might be timetabled in the future, and it has been agreed that there should be a rolling programme.

To ensure inspections and assessment are co-ordinated, we have developed options with Ofsted to see how corporate assessments might best fit with the joint area reviews for se rvices for children and young people. These options are set out in our recent methodology document and the discussion paper published by Ofsted.

The Audit Commission is also working closely with the Commission for Social Care Inspection and other inspectorates to ensure that inspection is proportionate, timely and focused on supporting improvement. Again, co-ordinating our activity with that of other inspectorates will be welcomed by councils as a tangible example of strategic regulation in action.

And more work needs to be done on user focus. I would count it a major success if the CPA process took more account of the views of users and local taxpayers. People should be really engaged with the CPA process, feeding in their views about needs and choices. This is where the future challenge for CPA lies.

Frances Done

Managing director local government, housing and criminal justice,

Audit Commission

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