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Performance pays off at the polls

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The comprehensive performance assessment helps the public judge their councils — but will this useful tool be lost under its successor?

The Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) is rapidly disappearing into history with the advent of the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA).

However, work by researchers from the universities of Cardiff, Exeter and Manchester suggests that CPA scores were a crude but powerful tool used by voters to punish poor performers — although there was no electoral reward for being in the top categories.

The research suggests that retaining an element of high-profile public labelling of councils for performance would benefit democratic accountability and council performance.

Voters’ interest in performance, coupled with career incentives for local politicians and senior managers, spurred local authorities into avoiding low scores.

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My colleagues and I created a multi-year database covering all English councils.

We statistically examined the links between initial local authority performance, election results, party political change, senior management turnover and changes in performance. We further probed our findings by interviewing council chief executives and cabinet members.

Our analysis looked at how service performance influenced the turnover of politicians and senior managers, and whether changing the ruling group, chief executive or top management affected performance.

We first looked at the influence of local authority service performance on election results and found that when a council received a CPA grade of ‘poor’ or ‘weak’ (later, zero or one star), the party or coalition in control of the council tended to lose between three and six percentage points of the vote share, compared with the previouselection.

Yet there was no electoral reward for achieving excellent performance.

This shows that when citizens have access to clear performance information, they are able to hold incumbent partygroups to account.

Change at the top

Rumours of local democracy’s demise need to be corrected: a centralised performance management system can actually help voters hold their local councils to account.

Low performance also tended to result in more changes among chief officers, particularly when low performance and a change in political control of the council occurred together.

In one council that had for several years been at the lower end of the performance scale, the new leader was frank about this: “The previous chief executive had to go, and we did this.”

Service directors, but not chief executives, were also more likely to depart following a change in political party control, even when performance was not low.

On average, one additional chief officer left when a local authority only achieved zero or one star on the CPA, as opposed to two stars or more. Interestingly, this relationship did not hold for chief executives, who appeared to be less affected on average in their present jobs by low performance. By itself, low performance only led to a handful of chief executive successions.

An important finding related to this is that turnover among chief officers tended to be higher in the years following a chief executive succession. This suggests chief executives influenced top team turnover by new appointments.

One chief executive said that on their appointment they decided to make big changes to the top team because
they needed people who had the right skills and were willing to rise to the challenge.

Possibly, chief executives were able to remedy low performance by changing the top management in other cases as well and there was therefore less of an immediate link between low performance and chief executive tenure.

CPA results

Nevertheless, future career options for chief executives depended on decent CPA results. In the words of one experienced chief executive: “The CPA has made the world a scarier place for chief executives. Now, it’s a bit like the football transfer market. If you’re a good scorer, you can get some great offers. But if you lose a star, your value goes down quickly. Who would want you then?”

A younger chief executive recognised the value of their own good performance track record. “If they don’t want me in two years, I’ll say: ‘Fine, I can go somewhere else’.”

Another chief executive stressed the improved bargaining position for the organisation as a result of a good CPA grade. “A good score is very useful for helping to build partnerships and also to defend yourself against critics.”

CAA will no longer provide a simple rating of each council’s performance that can berecognised by voters

Professor George Boyne

We also looked at the influence of political control on performance. Both Conservative and Labour control of a council, as well as changes to Conservative control, tended to be associated with higher performance in the core services than no overall control or control by the Liberal Democrats.

But this only applied if the majority of the Conservative or Labour incumbent was tight (less than about 55% of council seats).

This meant there was a high chance they would lose their majority at the next election, so they were kept on their toes about service performance. It should be noted that these findings do not carry over to government-measured citizen satisfaction, where there was no overall difference between the parties.

We suggest the slight performance bonus the two main parties produced was due to their experience in governing locally and in central government, which might change if the Liberal Democrats gain more power.

Another factor might be that CPA was based on a strong, centrally-led corporate model of running an authority, which might benefit parties that have stronger central leadership and a narrower range of viewpoints within the party.

Indeed, the Conservatives were described as “more disciplined and leader led” by one chief executive.

Ups and downs

Changing the top officers did not prove to be a means for improving the performance of local authorities across the board. The arrival of new chief executives and chief officers only improved the performance of councils at an initially low level of performance.

In such cases, new managers did tend to raise performance by more than would be expected anyway.

On the other hand, in councils already achieving four stars on the CPA (or, earlier, an ‘excellent’ grade), increases in top officer turnover tended to lead to performance drops.

Ultimately, the CPA helped to bring about improvements to council performance, particularly at the low end. Even one chief executive who on the whole is critical of both the CPA and the CAA suggested that the positive impact of CPA on service improvement “is an indictment of local government”.

Another said: “It is interesting that local government has largely succeeded in learning to focus on performance, while most of central government has failed.”

We are interested in learning how the CAA will affect the relationship between local democracy and local authority performance. We are also concerned that the new focus on performance of the whole area, as opposed to local councils, will again take the teeth out of local democracy that proved helpful in addressing poor performance.

CAA will no longer provide a simple, clear headline rating of each council’s performance that can be recognised by voters who do not normally concern themselves with the intricacies of performance.

Other concerns, which are always important in English local elections, could come to fully outweigh a council’s performance. This would enable weakly performing councils run by a nationally popular party to get by — thus diminishing the role of local elections to hold local politicians to account for local performance.

George Boyne is professor of public sector management at Cardiff Business School.

Professor Boyne led research on The CPA: A Lost Mechanism for Democratic Accountability and Better Performance? With professors Oliver James (University of Exeter) and Peter John (University of Manchester) and researcher Dr Nicolai Petrovsky

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • What a strange angle to argue from! Both that the comprehensive area assessment helps the public judge their council (spurious rubbish with no evidence base despite claims) or that the CAA as a tool is any way shape or form 'better'.

    The belief that voters go to a website to look at a set of performance indicators before voting is so flawed that it is the worst academic logic. Voters vote based on a range of complex reasons, both national and local. They often form their judgements about local services based on their EXPERIENCE of public services and not based upon some dodgy set of indicators partly formed by 'audit commission inspectors' amongst others. For example when they go to their doctors, their hospital, when they have to claim benefits (they will be a lot of new users of this service making judgements) and their experience of the police etc.

    If voters ever did go by the Audit Commission inspectorate judgement they would not reflect the reality of the service, but an representation of services based upon government definitions.

    Basically, it is another massive waste of money, tying-up more specifiers, more university researchers and more inspectors who want to judge on their severely flawed perception of the world

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