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Councils support CPA, but anxieties about failings remain, admits Paul Kirby ...
Councils support CPA, but anxieties about failings remain, admits Paul Kirby

A year ago this week, the Audit Commission published Changing gear. This was a definitive look at best value, setting out what inspection had achieved and how it could be re-shaped to foster improvement better.

Since then, the landscape has changed dramatically. The local government white paper set out a plan for comprehensive performance assessment and the commission has been working intensively with local government this year to design a system that will deliver.

We have been consulting with councils and other stakeholders on a number of levels and in a variety of ways including pathfinders, reference groups, workshops, conferences and two major consultation papers. Our first raft of consultation focused on what should be included in determining CPA scores, which resulted in the approach to corporate assessment and particular service blocks. The second consultation paper explores how different components should be pulled together. This drew 140 responses, 94 from councils. The next stage must be to determine with local government how we report findings in a way that supports improvement.

Most feedback supports CPA, with debate focused on the detail of how it is weighted. Councils see CPA as a means of reducing and streamlining regulation and welcome the differentiated approach. The best councils are eager for freedom and do not want to be treated with the same broad brush as everyone else; the poorest councils have generally held their hands up and said they want to move forward with support rather than judgment. The aspects of CPA most liked are that it is truly comprehensive and the self-assessment.

Many councils have commented that the self-assessment is a really useful exercise in building an honest, clear picture of themselves.

There are of course, anxieties. These can be categorised into roughly two camps: concerns about how genuine failings will be dealt with - that is, how balanced and constructive the local reporting will be - and concerns about being marked down unjustly because of a technical calculation. Weighting given to performance indicators or of particular service blocks are indicative of the technical issues that have arisen.

The range of the rules and approaches we suggested in the summer were made for good reason. But we will not apply rigid formulas that deliver skewed results. As we have collected more data and completed more assessments, it has become clear that some of the rules can have a significant and undesirable effect on a few councils. For this reason, we are systematically working through the framework and adapting rules which seem to deliver results out of kilter with the larger picture. The changes are generally moving more councils into better-performing categories but we are not seeing dramatic shifts. This should provide reason to celebrate local government's achievements: around a third of councils will be coming out in the top categories.

But there will no doubt be some difficult messages around councils described as poor and weak.

There will not be any surprises for councils about their results. Nearing the end of the second consultation phase - the weighting - the next big issue is how we communicate this in a way that highlights improvement.

In all the debate over the details of CPA and rank, we must not forget that CPA is a means to an end. The most critical element is how councils take the intelligence and improve the quality of the services they provide for local people.

Paul Kirby

Director of inspection, Audit Commission

Snapshot of councils' comments

'Writing and consulting on the self-assessment was helpful for the authority to focus more on corporate tasks ahead. The overall process strengthened member and officer relationships.'

'Emphasis should be on assisting councils and helping them learn. Audit and inspection should be well co-ordinated

and support real improvement.'

'We don't accept that a single score in individual service areas should

rule an authority out of

some classifications.'

'The report card should be sufficiently detailed to reflect local and other circumstances - one-word categorisation would otherwise be misleading.'

'Concern over timescale - CPA is being developed at the same time as being implemented.'

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