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FEATURES - TIME FOR A PAIN-FREE EXISTENCE

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Local government must put an end to self-flagellation and stand its ground ...
Local government must put an end to self-flagellation and stand its ground

Why has local government responded in such supine fashion to the government's proposals for comprehensive performance assessment?

Is it a fundamental lack of self-confidence or a deep fear that this prime minister might otherwise sweep all English councils to oblivion? Or are local government officers now so accustomed to jumping through hoops that they gain a perverse pleasure from doing so?

The white paper proposals are only four months old and already the machinery of conferences and workshops has ground into gear. We are told that councils are queuing at the door of the Audit Commission to submit themselves to the inspectors. Pathfinders are busy finding paths.

Councils apparently cannot wait to go through a form of self-assessment and external inspection that will label them in one of four categories. Justifiably or not, the majority will probably be identified as 'coasters' or 'failures', with serious consequences for their subsequent ability to attract and retain staff. Their ability to make progress or remedy their defects will thereby be hindered, not helped, by this exercise.

Would local or regional government anywhere else in Europe simply roll over and allow a set of inspectors, who know rather less than they do about the day-to-day business of delivering public services, to come in and label them using simplistic methodology?

Perhaps this is a symptom of an English disease - the Welsh Assembly has wisely chosen a different course - namely a failure to recognise that regimes of performance management and inspection are not yet proven to lead to better long-term outcomes. This is coupled with an excessive deference to a Cabinet and Whitehall machine that is quick to make judgments on every layer of government and public service.

Where is the substantive evidence from history or another political system that public services will improve in the long-term as a result of this kind of bureaucratic and centralist performance measurement regime? Lord Hanningfield (Con) is so far the only member of the Local Government Association executive to ask the question.

Areas of failure and inadequacy may be exposed to public gaze, but to what real end? As the public is all too aware, there are already serious shortages of high-calibre staff in the public sector, flowing from a complex set of economic and social changes.

Local government secretary Stephen Byers might have fought hard to win battles among his colleagues to ensure nothing worse than a CPA regime was inflicted on local government. The LGA might still feel it made the right tactical decision in a complex battle, wringing white paper concessions from a generally unsupportive Cabinet. But has anyone thought through the end game?

What would happen if councils quietly rebelled and decided not to go along with the government's plans? Local government secretary Stephen Byers has more pressing worries. Other government departments would be more than happy to revert to doing their own thing. Who would really object if councils spent their time doing something more constructive than engaging in an orgy of self-assessment, inspection and simplistic measurement?

The Audit Commission would be upset, but it could swiftly find other aspects of the government machine to worry about.

Would there be any serious retribution if all

councils said a polite 'no' to CPA? Is there any primary legislation in place through which the DTLR and the

Audit Commission could enforce the process? If so, perhaps there would be legal channels for councils to pursue in return. The Audit Commission is a strange legislative animal, and this further widening of its activities takes it even further away from its original

role.

In the context of European law, and principles of subsidiarity, does the commission have any right to pass judgements on the effectiveness of democratically elected councils if its poorly evidenced and arguable verdicts can be shown to lead to public detriment?

The appeal process for CPA decisions has yet to be made known in any detail. Perhaps a few shots across the bows of the commission, and its incoming chairman, would be worth a fiver or two in legal fees?

What other forms of subversion could be tried? A 'balanced scorecard' for the performance of central government departments, organised and administered

by the LGA and based on the speed and effectiveness

of Whitehall's response in PSA negotiations?

Councils could come up with their own measures of what constitutes good corporate governance, rather than waiting for the Audit Commission to refine its long and audit-driven checklist. The prospect of the DTLR laying down the law on this particular subject, while its own governance arrangements unravel before the Public Administration Select Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, is likely to cause continuing public merriment.

Perhaps this is the moment local councils should stop acting as acquiescent lemmings, jostling each other in their haste to reach the edge of the cliff, and start thinking about the longer term. They should consider where they want to be when the public mood shifts, when PIs and governmental micro-management fall out of fashion, and when the flaws of New Labour's modernisation plans bring a real backlash.

Compared with the many major battles that loom over reform of public services, this could be a quiet war. Local government could continue to welcome much of the white paper, while suggesting a better alternative than the CPA regime and operating a policy of united non-co-operation with the Audit Commission.

If the few potential high-performers are prepared to join with their fellow councils, in the interests of local government as a whole, this is a battle that could be swiftly won.

The author, who wished to remain anonymous, is a head of

corporate services.

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