Civil servants, inspectors and regulators have expressed concern that ‘sector-led improvement’ lacks transparency, according to an evaluation report to be published later this month.
Evaluation of the system championed by the LGA since the demise of the Audit Commission has raised further questions about the way councils have been allowed to potentially withold from the public the findings of corporate peer challenge visits.
As previously reported by LGC, two of the 31 councils peer challenged decided not to release the information while a number of others are yet to decide. Those were Mid Devon DC and Hambleton and Richmondshier DCs, who at the time had a joint chief executive. Another 17 had published the reports, five said they intended to publish, five were yet to receive the report and two were yet to decide.
Ipsos MORI interviews with senior government officials and third sector bodies also reported concerns about the voluntary nature of the system championed by the LGA since the demise of the Audit Commission.
Members of the LGA’s improvement board are due to discuss the findings of an evaluation report on Monday morning including the verdicts of officials from the Department for Communities & Local Government, Department for Education and the Department of Health.
“Awareness of the approach is high, and stakeholder are positive,” a summary report said. “However, stakeholders perceive the system to be based on voluntary participation and there were concerns as to whether this would pick up those local authorities who are not performing well.”
According to interviews with the same stakeholders, “another risk was felt to be around transparency” the report said, with the lack of publication of data - such as peer challenges not being systematically published and LG Inform not currently being open to the public - leading stakeholders to believe the system wa “not publicly accountable”.
The stakeholders told researchers the LGA should take “a clear line” on “whether peer challenge reports should have to be publicly available”, a report to the improvement board states.
The LGA’s position on publication of peer challenge reports is that it is up to councils to decide but that the association encourages them to do so.
Peter Fleming (Con), chair of the improvement board, said Mid Devon DC had received its peer challenge when the system was being piloted “so it was reasonable for them not to publish because it was so early on”. Hambleton and Richmond DC’s peer review had focused on shared services and had dissolved their sharing arrangements soon afterwards, he added.
“The real story is that since then the vast majority [of peer challenged councils] have published,” he said.
The LGA has not changed its line that publication of the corporate peer challenge reports should be a decision for councils. “At the end of the day we are not a regulator”, he said. The challenges “are only a small part of sector led improvement”, he added, alongside member and officer support as well as online data and benchmarking tools such as the Knowledge Hub and LG Inform.
The full evaluation report on sector led improvement, which also includes feedback from council chief executives, senior officers and members of the public, is due to be published later this month.
It is part of a three part evaluation report, the first providing a ‘baseline’ picture before an interim report in early 2013 and a final report at the end of next year.