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Openness is our driver for excellence

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It’s probably true to say that many in local government welcomed the demise of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment and its successor, the Comprehensive Area Assessment. Similarly, many will have been less than heartbroken to see the end of the Audit Commission and its role in monitoring the performance of councils.

But the way that councils do their job – and deliver the multitude of services that the people in their areas rely upon – is of course something that has to be measured. Residents have a right to know – and councils themselves need to keep a constant and accurate check on how they are performing if they are to reach excellence.

We are aiming to fill the gap left by the demise of the CPA etc with what we believe is a pioneering approach to performance management which will be a practical tool to help achieve our goal

Sandwell’s goal is to be an excellent council by 31 March 2013. We are aiming to fill the gap left by the demise of the CPA etc with what we believe is a pioneering approach to performance management which will be a practical tool to help achieve our goal. Crucially, it also gives local people an important role in spurring us on to excellence.

The approach is called the Sandwell Scorecard and is as far away from the paper-based mass of close-packed text and tables traditionally used to measure performance as it’s possible to get. Instead, it’s an internet tool – on the council’s website for all to see – which tells people in pictures and English that’s as clear as we can make it what the council is doing.

We’ve developed the scorecard after Cabinet members and senior officers identified the key priorities that local people had told us were most important to them. Since then, we have boiled down our efforts to achieve those priorities – where we’re starting from, where we aim to get to and what we’re doing to make progress — into a storyline that can be published on the web.

We’ve built this around the three elements in Sandwell’s long-term vision for itself – Great People, Great Place, Great Prospects – plus a fourth heading, Great Performance, to cover the council’s internal workings. Now we’re fleshing out the storyline with more information – case studies, photos, videos, press cuttings etc – which we’re updating as and when things happen.

The idea is to provide a “real time” account of progress which everyone can view – a far cry from the traditional quarterly report to a committee or Cabinet meeting! We’ve built the website so the information residents see is in layers, each fuller than the one before, so they can choose how much data they get. It also includes a facility for residents to comment at the click of a mouse on what they see – literally to mark our card!

In Sandwell we believe our new scorecard is a fresh approach to identifying and visualising priorities which drags performance management out of the back room and into the public arena in a way which makes it accessible and meaningful to our residents. It’s still early days but we hope the scorecard will motivate local people to join the council on our journey to excellence.

There are, of course, what some may see as dangers to such an approach. Some might throw their hands up in horror at the “accountability even if it hurts” implied in declaring what we intend to do – and then reporting progress – in such an instantly public fashion.

But we believe openness is the best long-term guarantor of progress. It’s not only right in a democratic system but it also has powerful practical advantages, not the least of which is that chief officers who know that their departmental plans are so publicly available will have even more incentive to make sure they succeed.

* Access the Sandwell Scorecard here: www.sandwell.gov.uk/mycouncil

Jan Britton, chief executive, Sandwell MBC

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