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FEATURES - PRAGMATISM, NOT POLITICAL PRESSURE

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James Strachan says CPA means a move to better services - and hopes politics will not get in the way. Emma Parsons ...
James Strachan says CPA means a move to better services - and hopes politics will not get in the way. Emma Parsons reports

James Strachan has been in his new job as chair of the Audit Commission since Guy Fawkes day, 'the day for independent spirits', he says quietly, confirming - before being asked - he is qualified to head the organisation in the face of cronyism accusations because his partner is culture minister Baroness Blackstone.

As he is deaf, the phrase 'actions speak louder than words' is poignant: 'Judge me by my actions. I spent five years in the voluntary sector often disagreeing with government policy. I do have a desire to protect our independence because that is the [commission's] primary asset and it would be madness to compromise it.'

On his relationship with Baroness Blackstone: 'We are very close, but we have very different opinions. To suggest your private relationship is going to affect your professional judgment - in my case it's simply untrue.'

After reading economics at Cambridge University,

Mr Strachan worked in the City, where he became managing director at investment bank Merrill Lynch, to raise the cash to go to film school, his early passion. He studied photography and journalism at the London College of Printing and worked in the field for the next nine years. It was during this time he got involved with the voluntary sector, joining the board of the Royal National Institute for Deaf & Hard of Hearing People.

'My knowledge of public services comes very much through the voluntary sector because we tried to get a lot more innovative about the way we worked, particularly with social services departments and in social care to - in the very early days of this idea - establish best-practice standards to set a floor everybody agreed to.'

One well-known example is the partnership between the RNID and the Department of Health to get digital hearing aids to Britain's two million audiology patients. 'There was this fantastic digital technology, and it wasn't available. We came in and said 'we are the world's largest single purchaser of hearing aids, and we could get that price down to a level at which you could completely modernise the service'. There's a political argument too: it was a hugely attractive proposition to say you could transform people's lives for£100-£150.'

The charity moved into project management in a way no voluntary sector organisation had ever done with a government department. It got the price of the hearing aids down from a prohibitive£2,000 to£70.

'It's a beautiful piece of partnership. This is what the NHS should be doing more of,' he says.

He has a skill for clinching deals which results from his being deaf. His reliance on body language makes him an effective negotiator. He is an expert lip-reader but, once he starts to talk, he has a habit of looking away, making it difficult to interrupt as, of course, he cannot hear you.

'People forget I'm lip-reading so they generally start to believe you really are that fascinated in what they're saying,' he says. 'It's a huge advantage because you can gauge quite quickly where someone's really coming from, as opposed to what's coming out of their mouth.'

The Audit Commission role is Mr Strachan's main job, three days a week. He is back on the board of the RNID and he sits on the boards of gas and electricity regulator Ofgem, lottery distributor the Community Fund and the Department of Trade and Industry business division.

'I was attracted to this job because it is a time when the focus on reform and improvement in public services is like no other, certainly in the past 10 years,' he says. 'The challenge for us is to say okay, here's this fantastic capability, this fantastic data set, this fantastic pool of knowledge and brain power, and here's improving public services. But show the Audit Commission is value for money. After all, if we spend all our time pronouncing opinions and judgments on other people's value for money we better be damn sure we are good at it.'

He sees his roles as leading on strategy and being one of two public faces, with controller Sir Andrew Foster.

'I see my job as coming in and being a questioner of almost everything. It's a bit like a first inspection. The process of creating our corporate plan and watching progress against it and revisiting it is exactly the same as the comprehensive performance assessment.' He wants to see three things: a tangible connection between the commission's work and improvement in public services, better two-way communication with services because 'you're not going to see local democracy flourish unless you underpin it with information' and deregulation.

'But the cry for less regulation is rather unsophisticated,' he says. 'You have to move to more intelligent regulation, strategically based.

'CPA is the perfect representation of that. It is a vehicle in which we can genuinely move out of this pervasive micro-inspection into a more strategic approach.'

It must be used for improvement: 'When this comes out, there will be people commenting professionally and people playing politics. I hope reason will prevail.'

But councils will say the process is political.

'I accept politics comes into it, but there's a balance. Let's not let those who shout loudest for political reasons primarily dwarf the very sensible debate and movement of thinking among people who have a more laudable objective, which is just getting better public services.

'This is something that's really worth doing so long as there is a follow-through, that it leads to tangible improvement and we get right what happens at the bottom of the table and hold the government to its commitments on freedoms and flexibilities. This whole thing would collapse if there is not the follow-through.'

There is an anecdote Mr Strachan tells about being beaten up at boarding school because of the slurred speech brought about by his profound deafness. He wrote immediately to his mother asking for two things - the best speech therapist she could find and judo lessons.

You might say he learned that being beaten up was a motivator for change - he now has perfect speech - and draw an analogy with the CPA.

He says the experience taught him to 'adopt this two-pronged approach to life: the speech therapy kicked in more slowly but the judo did wonders straight away' - perhaps a more charitable parallel with the controversial inspection regime.

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