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FRONT LINE FIRST - WARNING THE AMBITIOUS COMMISSION

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Many of us in local government are beginning to ask whether the Audit Commission is getting too big for its boots a...
Many of us in local government are beginning to ask whether the Audit Commission is getting too big for its boots and straying into areas where it has no business.

The Audit Commission now regularly gets more coverage in the local government press than the Local Government Association and the Improvement & Development Agency. In the 22 March issue of LGC, for example, there were nine separate stories in the first four pages of the magazine featuring the commission, not many of them very positive about local government.

Maybe the Audit Commission is flushed with the success of getting the key role in the new comprehensive performance assessment scheme. But there is no doubt where the responsibility lies for the crude and inappropriate performance categories contained in the white paper. Striving and coasting councils were defined in the commission's Changing gear publication of September last year, which also backed the differentiated approach to freedoms, flexibilities and prescription adopted by the government. It is the commission that is forging ahead on an unrealistic timescale to implement the scheme, ignoring the concerns expressed from most local government quarters.

We must all be very concerned about the competence of the commission to carry out the corporate governance inspections. The commission does not have the track record of IDeA's peer review and performance support operations and the reports I have received of the corporate governance inspections carried out so far have been distinctly under-whelming.

There is little reassurance from our collective experiences of best value inspections, and there has been a de-motivating element caused by the commission's unlikely to improve categorisation.

The commission is in great danger of compromising its neutrality and credibility by straying into highly political areas and being seen as dictating policy to local government.

Its recent publication A force for change is a case in point. Research by the commission was held up to show that government intervention had been successful in almost three quarters of cases. This 'research' amounted to little more than an opinion poll and its subjectivity was rightly lambasted by both the LGA and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.

But this did not stop the commission making a number of contentious recommendations, such as that 'the government should develop the current range of intervention approaches to include more options for addressing poor political leadership (including the option of administration)'.

The commission's publication Competitive procurement overtly links the judgment of performance and the extent of outsourcing and is another worrying example of a recent lack of balance. According to the commission, high-performing councils in procurement are those where option appraisal is robust and comprehensive and over 70% resulted in out-sourcing. Poor-performing councils are those where option appraisal is either non-existent or partial and 'almost invariably resulted in maintenance of the in-house service'. Robust option appraisal is one thing, linking poor performance with in-house provision quite another.

So I would urge the Audit Commission to show less hubris, work more collaboratively and stay neutral on policy.

Dennis Reed

Director, Local Government Information Unit

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