The Audit Commission published the 1999-2000 performance indicators - the final set of pre-best value performance indicators - with very little fuss on 10 January.
LGC carried a number of comments on the indicators, including these from the Audit Commission:
'Over the past few years many councils have improved the quality of their local services and their efforts should be congratulated;' 'The standard of service received by the public still varies according to where people live, and some councils have to make significant improvements;' and 'We would expect significant improvements in the next round of PIs following the introduction of best value,' from local government minister Beverley Hughes.
The main message appears to be that improvements in performance were concentrated in the high-profile services such as education and social services - and that standards in some other services, including housing management, had fallen since the publication of the last set of indicators. What this means is less clear.
Does it mean services improve if central government is closely involved in their development and targets them with extra money? This is clearly one interpretation given the sheer volume of government directives over the last few years and the rapid expansion in specific grant aid.
An equally plausible interpretation is that if central government introduces a large number of initiatives over a short period of time - linked in many cases to specific grant aid - this is likely to have the effect of:
-Focusing the attention of senior management on new initiatives, and on the drafting of the cases/bids for specific grant aid
-Diverting funding from mainstream
services, which are of less interest to the
government, to provide the matched funding required to secure many of the grants
-Reducing management attention to, and the standards of, less high-profile services.
It would be tempting for central government to grasp the first interpretation and use it to justify greater involvement. But if the second interpretation is the more realistic, the minister and others could be disappointed by the first set of post-best value indicators. But there is no empirical evidence to support either interpretation.
The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has already started to explore the issues in its paper The effect of ring-fencing of resources on the delivery of agreed national priorities, which outlines the effects of ring-fencing on those elements of the major services not eligible for specific grants.
Perhaps English councils should commission research into the factors leading to changes in performance levels - before the ring-fence becomes a noose.
-Rita Hale, director, Rita Hale Associates.