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FROM THE TOP - JOIN THE POPULAR FRONT

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The public notices a job well done, says Helen Bailey ...
The public notices a job well done, says Helen Bailey

Those of us inside the bubble can be too easily preoccupied with the 'future of local government' debate. But the question is, do real people notice and appreciate what we do?

I regularly remind recruits that unless we provide services that people value, and deliver them with respect, all of us - chief executive or refuse collector - will be out of a job.

Defining these standards is difficult and we all struggle to make sense of various agendas: less direct control and more partnership; higher targets and more performance measurements; less service delivery and more community leadership.

Our focus increasingly moves from traditional areas like housing, education, social services and refuse, to new ones like community cohesion, anti-social behaviour and liveability. And yet we still want to improve. We are driven by the need to keep the customer and the inspector satisfied, while the debate around national services is obscured by complex data, the distance from real life and user frustrations.

Islington LBC's comprehensive performance assessment experience has been unusual in that it was service performance that let us down in 2002, rather than corporate capacity.

Energy is now focused on services that must not only deliver better results but also be more responsive to customer demand. This can feel like painting the Forth bridge - however much we survey, it is hard to know whether our perception of the improvements is shared and appreciated.

With this in mind, we awaited the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister-commissioned customer satisfaction survey. To our relief and delight, Islington tops the London tables in six out of seven customer satisfaction surveys, carried out by MORI in 30 London boroughs. Good news, but what does it tell us?

At first glance, we appear to have some of the most popular services in London: 67% of residents satisfied with transport planning and traffic management; 57% happy with waste collection, street cleaning and recycling, and much improved scores in housing and social services. We also buck a national trend, as almost a third of Islington residents believe the council is improving.

Gratifying as this is, the most encouraging element is that residents have noted our determination to improve the quality and responsiveness of the services. They see the investment in the borough and experience the changes. Their enthusiasm is borne out by those who volunteer to become an 'eye for Islington' - and report problems for the council to tackle - or monitor our parks maintenance contract.

The survey results also say something about the wider debate. Local people do notice better services. More than that, they can discern changes in attitude as well as changes of score. For an improving authority, this is an important endorsement. It is also a reminder that local government reaches parts other service providers do not. If we lose the local connection when focusingon wider economies, then we may find that public service as a whole is the loser.

Helen Bailey

Chief executive, Islington LBC

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