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FEATURES-CROCODILE TIERS

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The government seems finally to be acknowledging the limitations of one-size- ...
The government seems finally to be acknowledging the limitations of one-size-

fits-all inspections. But, asks Vipul Thacker, will the tiered replacement be any better?

It is good to hear top-performing councils will only have to endure light-touch inspections and will be allowed to act without ministerial consent (LGC, 26 October). And it is good to hear of the lively debate between the Audit Commission and the DTLR over the ranking of councils.

Local government secretary Stephen Byers has announced a three-month review of the best value regime (LGC, 5 October). Perfect timing given the growing criticism of the inspection regime.

Both the proposed white paper and Mr Byers' review aim to cut bureaucracy and provide radical new freedoms and rewards to councils offering good public services. The fundamental principle of this must be a determined commitment to improvement of public services.

The one-size-fits-all best value inspection regime has to change and the process has to be flexible enough to allow it to be negotiated.

The proposed four-tiered approach to inspections, which appears to give councils independence from central government diktat, will dangle prizes only to those councils meeting a series of set criteria. Under this approach councils are divided into four categories: the high flyers; the strivers; the coasters; and the failures.

The Audit Commission believes 70% of councils are coasting or failing. This means only a few councils will be seeing less of their inspectors.

Such an approach is not only crude but fails to recognise every council is different and needs tailor-made relationships with its inspectors. A much more robust approach is needed.

Every council should benefit from an assessment of its capacity, commitment and vision to change and improve. The Improvement & Development Agency peer review process gets closest to this, but it is voluntary.

Corporate governance inspections may be the answer. The pilot inspections, being developed by the Best Value Inspection Service, are not triggered by failure or under-performance. So far results have been positive.

An inspection looking at a council's capacity, ability, and willingness to work with its community would result in a more robust and focused approach.

Those councils achieving certain key targets should be offered light-touch inspections and allowed to be innovative in delivering quality public services. Such targets could include:

-Building a clear corporate vision

-Being demonstrably customer-focused

-Having a well-designed and effective communication strategy

-Consulting vigorously and meaningfully

-Building effective partnerships.

Councils should demonstrate their capacity for innovative decision making with robust corporate performance systems and in-built change and project management abilities. Such councils should be offered freedoms and incentives to be more creative and innovative - as long as the aim of securing quality public services remains at the heart of everything they do.

Such an approach would require early winners as do most innovative ideas. By focusing on a few set criteria, the process would go a long way to cutting bureaucracy and inspection turnaround times.

It would allow the strivers and top-performers to concentrate their time, resources and efforts on delivering high-class public services at a price residents are willing to pay.

Vipul Thacker

Policy manager, best value and performance,

Barnet LBC

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