An inspection visit is not a date you ring with hearts and flowers in your diary. But there are tried and tested approaches to lessen the stomach-churning impact.
External inspections are seen as key to improving council performance. But from an insider's point of view, inspection - however fair and important - can be a burden that distracts staff from their core tasks.
Establish a dedicated team
The Improvement & Development Agency, in its advice on comprehensive performance assessment, suggests councils invest properly in the process and establish a dedicated team led by a chief officer. This way, problems should not prevent the council creating the right impression.
Bob Coomber, chief executive of Southwark LBC, which has moved from 'weak' to 'good' in its CPA, recommends treating the whole experience as an examination.
'You need to manage it pro-actively, rather then leave it to chance. Think about what people will want to see - what evidence will you need to give them? You need a group of people to organise the inspection at a senior level - a chief executive if it is a corporate assessment,' he says.
Anticipate what inspectors need
Most inspections are so highly prescribed, says Mr Coomber, that you can broadly anticipate what inspectors want to see.
'You have to anticipate what they want, make sure everything is convenient, that they have proper IT support, access to the right people. Organise a liaison person. Treat inspectors with a reasonable level of deference. Make sure they receive the information they ask for on time.'
Organisation is key
Mr Coomber says details matter. Booking poor accommodation, for example, could mean inspectors start their visit with a 'sense of grievance'.
It is also vital to have a plan. 'The inspectors will have a fixed view about what they want to do. You should have a view on what you want them to see. How can you best present the subject matter?' But he adds: 'You have to be well-organised but not artificial, because inspectors will see through that.'
Tony Hunter, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, says it is important to treat inspectors as customers. 'If you lock yourself away, it looks like you are either too scared to see them or are not treating the inspection as important. Ask what level of communication they would find helpful. Agree ground rules - if something horrendous is uncovered, you would like to know straight away.'
Inspectors do not want a heap of paperwork which leaves them to piece together a timeline. 'I don't want every committee report, every memo. I want a story. I know it means somebody writing it out, but if we've got one piece of paper with the correct story on it, that's great,' one inspector posted on the IDeA website.
Mr Hunter agrees: 'I heard of one authority that created a library of information and said, 'You will find what you need in there'.
'There was no other help to find the documents they needed. You need to summarize information and say there is more here if you need it. Inspectors have far more to do in a short period of time than is reasonable and they have to come to massively important judgments. You need to help them reach decisions in a way that can contribute to service improvements.'
Brief your team
Mr Hunter recommends that managers brief teams.
'It's good to get into the details. Some inspections have had 'reality testing groups' - a half-day session to work through self assessment documents.
'You can say, 'This is how it looks to us as senior managers - is this what it looks like to you?''
>> IDeA has further advice on inspections, specifically for the CPA process: www.idea.gov.uk
>> The Audit Commission will post new guidance in approximately three months: www.
>> The changing role of the Audit Commission inspection of local government: www.jrf.org.uk
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