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A question of engagement

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It is over a year and a half since the LGA launched ‘sector-led improvement’, its proposal for what should fill the hole left by the abolished Audit Commission and avoid placing a new burden of unwelcome requirements on councils.

While commentators who LGC spoke to this week are enthusiastic supporters of the move, some observers have raised concerns about the concept, as shown by a recent audit of stakeholder perceptions carried out by the LGA.

One worry was that the voluntary nature of the system would allow poor performers to slip through the net, and it is clear that many councils are still not engaged with the concept.

Take peer challenge. Every English council is entitled to a free corporate peer review, but so far only 120 have signed up for this. There is still time for everyone else to get on board, but worryingly the LGA’s perception audit found that as yet 23% of surveyed heads of performance and policy had no plans to use such a system.

However, sector-led improvement is not just about peer challenge (see box) and other concerns have also been raised.

Public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge MP (Lab) recently questioned why the performance data tool LG Inform was still not available to the public more than two years after the Audit Commission’s abolition was announced.

Similarly, although 88% of councils are signed up to LG Inform, only 77% of policy and performance directors had heard of it and activity logs for early- to mid-2012 showed that fewer than 70% of councils had logged on in the previous 60 days.

Sector-led improvement is also about avoiding formal interventions of the kind seen most recently at Doncaster MBC. Proponents often point to Wirral MBC, where minister-appointed commissioners were avoided and the council is instead using sector support to help it deal with its governance and financial problems.

But there are other troubled councils out there, such as Tower Hamlets LBC, which is riven by political division as Doncaster once was.

The council recently caught the attention of ministers as councillors and the mayor failed to agree on a chief executive appointment. But offers of help from the LGA and London Councils, and the successful appointment of a head of paid service, have not prevented ministers from very publicly criticising the authority on a range of issues.

Naming and shaming may not work, as LGA improvement board chair Peter Fleming (Con) argues (see right) but it is clearly something ministers are happy to engage in, perhaps because they feel the alternative is not working in this particular case.

The biggest risk for sector-led improvement is that the public, ministers, MPs or other onlookers come to believe there is only partial engagement among councils.

That would be disastrous for the LGA and the sector as a whole. It would inevitably lead straight back to the kind of top-down approach from which councils have just escaped - an outcome surely nobody would wish for.

More than the sum of its parts

Sector-led improvement involves more than peer challenge teams, made up of councillors and officers from other councils, assessing and advising an authority.

A key component is accountability to the electorate, rather than external inspectors, and this requires clear and transparent information for the public, as well as comparable data via tools such as LG Inform.

Other areas of focus are best practice, as seen on the LGA’s online Knowledge Hub, and leadership training for both members and officers.

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