27 November - 1 December 2000
The London Borough of Lambeth has come a long way from the days in which it was perceived to be a 'loony left', anti poll tax authority delivering poor quality services. Many improvements have been made but some vestiges of the past continue to dog change efforts.
Despite this, the review team found a number of areas of strength. These include:
* substantial improvements from the dire position of the past
* high expectations of, and goodwill for, the new leader and chief executive
* very capable and energetic members
* a strong desire of managers and staff to improve
* good individual successes
* a diverse workforce which reflects the local community
The council, however, has a significant amount of work to do in order to achieve its goal of being a flagship council measured against the benchmark of an 'ideal' local authority. Between 1994 and approximately 1998, some progress was made in improving service delivery. However, from then until the present, the team felt that progress has been uneven and is fragile. While there is undoubtedly potential for improvement, there is also a real risk of stagnation and even of deterioration.
The team identified that there is a lot further to go than is generally understood. Staff, representatives of the local community and partners all agreed that things were now better. However comparisons based on the extremely poor performance of the pre-1994 era, rather than with that of high performing councils nationally, leads to an artificial sense of satisfaction that good progress is being made.
The new political leadership is genuinely committed and determined to ensure improvements are made. By their own admission, they are impatient and want things to happen immediately. The consequence of this is that there is a danger of over promising what can be achieved, raising expectations and under delivering against the promises being made.
As a result of high levels of cutbacks in the past, staff continue to feel insecure and believe that despite the efforts they are making, they are undervalued and unappreciated.
Relations and links with the local community remain weak. Their lack of confidence in the council's genuine willingness to engage with them, and their cynicism, has still be overcome. Despite a minority ethnic population of nearly 40 per cent, there is little visible progress on the race equality agenda.
The review team concluded that the current situation is a result of weaknesses in both the change strategy and the delivery mechanisms.
With regard to strategy, while there is a great deal of energy and talent amongst members and officers, there is insufficient clarity, focus and direction. The council's behaviour was aptly likened by one interviewee to that of a puppy - bouncy, playful, but lacking in discipline.
While new and potentially strong top political and managerial leadership is now in place, there is an absence of strong, wider corporate leadership and management. The financial and service strategies being pursued are unrealistic and, although clearly a matter of local choice, the review team was concerned that the low council tax policy may be unsustainable in the longer term. Difficult and important tasks, such as Best Value, community development and race equality, are not receiving sufficient attention and effort from a high enough level with the consequence that progress and performance is weak or absent.
With regard to service delivery, there is a lack of realism about what can be achieved within the time and resources available. Targets are set without discussion as to how they will be achieved. Performance management systems are weak or non-existent in some cases, such as in the area of corporate human resources. Too many competing targets results in both lack of follow through or attempts being made to work towards all of them but few being achieved. Staff are consequently pressured to deliver but not provided with the support they need to find the solutions to overcoming problems which get in their way.
The council is committed to being the best London council. This is achievable, but only with a greater degree of focus and realism. Identification of the critical key tasks, and the allocation of the required resources, together with appropriate time scales for their achievement are, however, essential pre-conditions for the attainment of this goal.
The full report is available in PDf here.