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Inspections under the microscope

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The words ‘burden’ and ‘inspection’ are two peas in a pod in local government parlance.

So last year’s announcement that a lighter touch reporting regime would be integral to the successor to comprehensive area assessments provided a ray of hope for the sector.

Angela Smith , local government minister at the time, said a key element of the comprehensive area assessments (CAA), which begin in earnest next April, would “build on other work being undertaken to reduce the reporting burden on councils”.

But the debate over the Baby P tragedy including the suggestion from Ofsted that Haringey LBC may have supplied inaccurate data for an arm’s-length performance assessment last year has heightened concerns the new inspection regimes taking effect in four months time may be rather more than “lighter touch”.

Even though the full CAA framework will not be published until February, the government has always been clear that inspections would be ‘risk-triggered’, with the implication that there would be no downgrading of oversight in areas where lives could be at risk.

Nevertheless, the principle behind CAA information collection is that it should come from performance data that councils use to monitor themselves and record their work, rather than being specially tailored for inspections themselves, inherently reducing the burden of inspections.

An Improvement & Development Agency evaluation of CAA trials conducted in 10 local authority areas over the summer reported that they had “indeed been relatively light touch”, before going on to say that the tests had been “artificial” and made use of existing comprehensive performance assessment data that would not be available in the future.

It concluded: “As a result it is probably too early to say with any assurance that the burden will be reduced in practice.”

While a reduced reporting burden is seen as key for local government to devote more resources to improving services, it is clear that not everyone shares that priority.

Ofsted chief inspector Christine Gilbert told the Commons’ children, schools and families select committee that the Baby P case had “really reinforced the need” for extra inspections of councils’ child safeguarding work in between the main inspections planned for every three years.

She added that the case had also caused the inspectorate to question whether the unannounced annual visits that it has proposed making to children’s social work departments should be longer than the originally proposed one or two days.

Just as it is a no-brainer that inspectorates like Ofsted will be less interested in reducing the burden of inspections on councils than on being recognised as doing a thorough job, the same is true for politicians.

Faced with the suggestion that Haringey had supplied misleading data to Ofsted in order to gain a ‘good’ rating for its children’s services in 2007, committee chairman Barry Sheerman (Lab) said the body could even base an inspector in each council to ensure the quality of the data it gets some distance from a “lighter touch”.

Ultimately, it is the Audit Commission that bears ultimate responsibility for the new CAA regime. And Gareth Davis, its managing director for local government, remains confident the new system will be a more constructive step for councils.

“The intention is to reduce the administrative burden on councils, but we still need to be asking challenging questions,” he said.

For him, the lighter touch means focusing on existing data and doing as much as possible to ensure that reporting duplications between inspectorates are reduced.

“We are much more interested in having access to the information that local councils are using to monitor their own performance, and we’ll use that rather than asking for new assessments,” he said.

“In other words, the less we rely on people filling in documents for inspection purposes, the more we’ll rely on original information.”

However, he makes no bones that the outcome-driven, whole-area focus of CAAs will see councils devoting more time to improvements in services that they are not directly responsible for.

Several local government sources expressed fear to LGC that the prospects for lighter-touch inspection seemed remote. And ranking highly on their list of worries were concerns that the various inspection bodies would not be able to agree on shared evidence.

The head of corporate performance at one London council said it was clear there was “a bit of a gap” between the principle of CAA and the practice.

He said that Ofsted appeared to be requiring more data than it currently did and that there was a potential for the others to do the same.

“The risk is that we end up fighting the inspection process,” he said.

LGC understands that the Local Government Association has taken Ofsted to task about at least one request for its new monitoring regime, on the grounds that the information it wanted was outside of the national indicator set.

Rob Whiteman , chief executive at Barking & Dagenham LBC which was one of the pilot sites for the summer’s CAA tests said he believed the betting was currently evens that the reporting burden would reduce under the new system, and that some battles would need to happen.

“What we’ve got to make sure we do is to work positively with the new system, but push back against it if doesn’t meet the spirit of the lighter touch,” he said. “Local government can’t sit back and see what it gets we have to confidently move forward to self-regulation.

“Good peer review is a lot better as a driver of change than corporate inspection, and a lot of people in government seem to be accepting that now, but we’re a long way from it becoming a reality.”

In the shorter term, he accepts that CAA could become “an extra layer of inspections” rather than a new streamlined structure, and that it could easily be subject to knee-jerk reactions to tragedies like the Baby P case.

“The risks to CAA will be in a crisis whether it’s Icelandic banks or child protection when rather than seeing the job of regulators as to test how well services are working, regulators will be more prone to impose processes on councils,” he said.

David Parsons (Con), chair of the LGA’s improvement board, sees the main challenge of CAAs in the need for councils to work together with a variety of partner organisations to come to a recognition of what services are actually like. And he is doubtful of the sector’s ability to improve services without the promised lighter touch.

“It’s perverse to say that we’ll have more inspections whether or not you need them, and expect us to do better,” he said. “The two are not particularly well suited to each other.”

Amelia Cookson, head of the Local Government Information Unit’s centre for service transformation, is more confident than most that the advent of CAA will lead to a reduction of inspection if not burden.

She believes the new system will lead to a refocusing of resources towards ensuring the safety of vulnerable children and adults, and a downscaling of other work.

“I think the one thing we’ll see is a much greater weighting to the areas of risk, away from the areas that are about quality of service,” she said. And she has a simple reason for believing that new legions of inspectors will not be hired to invade unwitting councils the government’s efficiency targets imposed five years ago and calling on all
inspectorates to make 30% efficiency savings by April next year.

“That’s a significant amount to have to cut your budget by,” she said. “And I can’t see that the government is going to put a huge amount of money into unnecessary inspections.”

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