First in David Cameron’s quango-firing line should be the Audit Commission.
Vince Cable was right to describe the competition for stars awarded by this unelected quango as disrespectful and perverse at the Local Government Association’s annual conference earlier this month.
An instrument of the reform regime, the Audit Commission fosters compliance rather than improvement; and compliance with bad ideas to boot.
Users know public services aren’t working and have said so in the recent Place Survey. Ministers, who believe targets and performance assessments are reliable indicators of good service, think the problems is that citizens have yet to notice the ‘improvement’.
The competition for stars awarded by this unelected quango is disrespectful and perverse
Politicians often wonder why it is that their local services are receive four-star ratings, yet their surgeries are full of people complaining.
The reason? Targets always make performance worse. Mandated, they descend into our public services and distort the way services are designed and managed – ensuring people are focused upwards to the regime, not outwards to their customers.
The Audit Commission is just part of the wider specifications industry – the army of people in Whitehall who spend their time creating specifications for public-sector managers’ compliance.
Getting rid of all of them would create two savings: The money it costs to have these jobs (significant) and the waste caused by complying with their wrong-headed ideas (much larger).
Take, for example, the Treasury’s recent operational efficiency programme, demanding more shared ‘back offices’.
The Audit Commission published its own report a few months earlier, which extolled the virtue of shared back offices, but nothing in the report supported its conclusion.
The Treasury report’s evidence base for more shared back offices is, by its own admission, based on ‘proxies, estimates and assumptions’. It is a blind belief in ‘economies of scale’.
In the private sector, economy of scale has been discovered to be a myth; indeed, the evidence is that these factory designs create massive waste through standardisation, centralisation and outsourcing – all features promulgated by the regime and attracting ticks in boxes by the Audit Commission.
The Audit Commission should be reined back to following the money.
If auditing performance, Audit Commission inspectors should be limited to asking just one question: ‘What measures are you using to understand and improve performance’? This will mean public-sector managers would be free from the considerable burden of preparation for audit, for the measures will be those actually in use.
Councils would rid themselves of their ‘performance management’ departments that are preoccupied with ticking boxes and collating ‘evidence’ for the Audit Commission.
The inspector will have to turn up where the work is done, improving the reliability of inspection at a stroke.
Most importantly, the choice of measures and method will be with the local service managers, fostering innovation rather than compliance, for innovation requires clarity about who has responsibility.
John Seddon, Visiting professor at Cardiff Business School, and managing director of Vanguard consultancy