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SCRUTINEER - VOCAL POINT

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The government is trying to improve on something that doesn't need improving, says Jim Grierson ...
The government is trying to improve on something that doesn't need improving, says Jim Grierson

Evidence such as Audit Commission reports shows that most councils are pretty efficient - even though they are often accused of the opposite.

But the government has decided to address this non-existent problem by bringing in a range of unnecessary measures which obfuscate rather than clarify.

Politicians of all persuasions have introduced a financial benchmarking system which equates councils with private companies. Value for money is the argument used, but even this is intellectually dishonest.

Value for money consists of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. Or in the shorthand of the Institute of Internal Auditors: 'Doing it cheap, doing it right and doing the right

thing.' Unfortunately, when this mantra is applied to local government the latter two

receive scant attention.

The raft of measures prescribed by the centre is largely invalid. For a start, the differences in size of councils and the scale and type of problems they face make genuine comparability impossible.

This is aggravated by the use of different accounting systems.

The statistics produced are also often only meaningful to an expert. Figures on cost are also open to interpretation, for example, a

library service which appears to

cost a lot could just mean it is a better library.

The system is pointless and a waste of time and effort. But beyond these arguments is the issue of local democracy. For good or ill it has always been the case that councillors decide their priorities bearing in mind the needs of the electors and the particular local problems that they need to address. That is how they decided to spend the funds at their disposal.

In some cases they are undoubtedly ill-advised or act for personal or doctrinal reasons rather than the common good. Nevertheless the system has endured because it has largely met the needs of the inhabitants.

Today the system is under attack by government and there is a danger that what has been tried and tested will eventually be subsumed into a national system.

Authoritarianism will take the place of local democracy and we will all be losers. Local government may well not be perfect - no human system is - but it is the best we have. As some might say: 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'

Jim Grierson

Independent consultant

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