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Twelve months into Gershon's three-year efficiency challenge and already authorities are knocking on the door of th...
Twelve months into Gershon's three-year efficiency challenge and already authorities are knocking on the door of their respective targets. With£1.9m saved against their target of£3.1bn, a typical town hall should hit its 7.5% challenge by around autumn 2006.

But statistics rarely give the best view. How timely then that the Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountants Finance Advisory Network scheduled events around efficiency in March - a series to which over 260 practitioners would come and add qualitative comments.

Our series showed that not everything is as easy as first appears. Definitions of what is a cashable/non-cashable saving, for instance, may have been out for some time, but when applied in the real world things are rarely as clear-cut. Something perhaps best evidenced by the 400 plus queries posted to the Improvement & Development Agency's electronic service delivery toolkit.

So when new guidance around capital, fees & charges, treasury management, partnership working and the like was published on the regional centres of excellence website (28 February) it was certainly much needed.

With more support and guidance expected from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's task-force covering case study work; revised quality cross checks and further examples of what should qualify as a saving, along with new operational suggestions and funded initiatives (with authorities) from the nine English regional centres of excellence, the spotlight for ongoing delivery of savings is likely to stay with councils as we move into year two.

By far the biggest concern of practitioners at our events centred on the sustainability of savings beyond 2007/2008. Efficiency is a marathon not a sprint, and for those pace setters that have simply offered up the softer options and picked the low hanging fruit, the focus must now move towards some tougher choices and more radical service transformation decisions as a means of increasing value for money in future.

And all this, of course, must now be done as clearly as possible given the new scrutiny expectations from ODPM - introduced on the back of some high profile criticism from the National Audit Office and others on the 'aspirational' nature of some of the figures submitted by authorities to date.

So despite the headlines, Gershon should not be considered a soft touch. The pressure may be off now, but the 2007 comprehensive spending review will surely give a sterner test from 2008/2009. And for anybody unsure of the quality of savings to date, perhaps your next backward-looking review should go somewhat deeper than simply the figures you submit.

Cliff Dalton CIPFA Financial Advisory Network, regional adviser

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