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The real power of the peer challenge

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One of the great things about local government is that there are many organisations doing the same things for their respective places.

Context may differ, but we share a common goal - trying to improve the overall wellbeing of our people and our places.

We are not in competition with each other - although the Audit Commission’s comprehensive performance assessment regime sometimes created an unhelpful competitive culture - and this is very different from the private sector, where I worked for 25 years.

There the primary driver was to win and I often wanted to know why the other guy had won and how his response was better than mine.

This is the main reason I decided to become part of the LGA’s peer challenge teams.

There is an appetite in our sector to promote our best practice, but often it has felt like a parade ground where a scratch below the surface will find that all that glitters is not gold. This can undermine the good practice that does exist.

This is not the case with peer challenge. It is real, on-the-coalface learning.

Because it is not your own council that you are considering, you are better able to sit back, be objective, extract the learning and make comparisons with your own authority.

When I come back to Swindon after a peer challenge visit I can look afresh at some of our challenges.

This was particularly the case after I had visited Stoke-on-Trent City Council and witnessed their inspirational approach to sustainable energy production.

However, a peer challenge is not just about learning.

We’re told we are ‘all in it together’. Those of us sitting on major budget challenges and with economic problems to address like the team feeling you only really get from the public sector - that feeling of wanting to help others.

I’m proud to be in public service and I feel a wider responsibility to the sector to apply my learning and experience for the common good.

This is the real power of peer challenges. It is not an inspection and it must never become that.

Peer challenges are about common allies learning from each other and trying to help by offering objective advice and insights.

A peer review can often involve a week out of the office for me, but I think my authority would agree that it gets additional value when I return home.

We all need to constantly re-energise and reinvigorate our thinking and practice. Peer challenge does it for me. From where I sit I find it hard to understand why a council would not wish to engage in one.

Gavin Jones, chief executive, Swindon BC and one of the LGA’s peer challengers

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