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Early findings from the CPA are published this week. Sir Andrew Foster...
Early findings from the CPA are published this week. Sir Andrew Foster

outlines three key qualities of best performers

The first stage of comprehensive performance assessment is drawing to a close. On 12 December, the Audit Commission will publish the final scores and CPA categories for single-tier and county councils in England. The commission is absolutely committed to seeing CPA not as an end in itself, but as the basis for improving council services for the benefit of those who use them. So the next phase of CPA will concentrate on the improvements that must now follow.

As one of our contributions to making improvement happen, this week the commission published A picture of performance: early lessons from comprehensive performance assessment. This bulletin draws out many of the positive messages from CPA, and identifies the crucial factors that make the difference in providing excellent services. By drawing attention to what the best councils are getting right, we can help all councils improve.

One of the most striking findings from the 150 corporate assessments we have carried out has been the high level of ambition in single-tier and county councils. This confirms my own experience of meeting and talking to officers and councillors up and down the country, and is a far cry from the picture of a timid and complacent local government that is sometimes painted by public commentators.

We found that most single-tier and county councils make good use of their capacity - their staff, money and other resources. But only the best councils consistently harness their capacity to match their high levels of ambition. We identified three key qualities that characterised all the best councils' work.

If councils are to excel, they need to stay focused on local priorities.

This means choosing new initiatives carefully and not being distracted by short-term crises.

Top-performing councils recognise that managing performance is about more than just having an effective performance-management system. They treat plans and targets as a way to achieve high-quality services, rather than as ends in themselves.

Finally, partnership working is an essential factor for success. The evidence from CPA is that the extensive range of partnerships that councils are involved in are beginning to pay real dividends in delivering better services for local people. Our corporate assessments found that nearly 70% of councils were involved in productive partnerships - partnerships that are clear about what they want to achieve, and that succeed in realising their aims.

Case studies in our bulletin show how four councils have built on these key factors to achieve their ambitions for improving services for local people. For Camden LBC, this means reducing inequalities in an area of economic extremes. Gateshead Council is working to improve quality of life in an area of high deprivation, Blackburn with Darwen BC's partnership working is an example of national good practice and Hertfordshire CC is focusing on meeting the needs of its citizens.

These lessons will help to inform the improvement planning stage of CPA, which has started with many councils. This is the crucial stage for ensuring the substantial investment made in CPA produces real benefits that the public can recognise. The commission's contribution involves working with other inspectorates to deliver a substantial cut in regulation for the best performers, to give them the space and freedom they need to excel, and to agree a programme of targeted audit and inspection work with the poorer performers, to give them the support they need to improve. We will continue to draw out the learning from CPA, and further publications will follow in the new year.

Sir Andrew Foster

Controller of the Audit Commission


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