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Taking IDeA forward

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Paul Roberts, the Improvement & Development Agency’s new managing director, believes the public spending crisis offers an opportunity for the body to boost a peer-led inpection model.

Paul Roberts, managing director of the IDeA

Paul Roberts could hardly be accused of lacking what ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey famously
described as “hinterland”.

Nottingham, where the Improvement & Development Agency’s recently appointed managing director lives, is handy for hillwalking in his beloved Peak District. But London, where he is based, allows him to indulge in what he describes as his “passion” for the arts.

This enthusiasm led to his appointment as an adviser to the Department for Children, Schools and Families on the government’s initiative to offer five hours of culture to all children and young people.

The former Nottingham City Council education director will need to draw on the sense of perspective, which such outside interests bring, as over the next year as he navigates the IDeA through what are bound to be choppy financial waters.

He has been director of strategy at the IDeA since 2004, which left him in pole position to take the top job when Lucy de Groot announced that she would step down as executive director last year.

Paul Roberts’ career

  • Improvement & Development Agency, Managing director, 2009
  • Improvement & Development Agency, Strategy director, 2004
  • Capita Strategic Education Services, Director, 2001
  • Nottingham City Council, Education director, 1997

The Local Government Association shakeup, which triggered Ms de Groot’s departure, is now history. But while the agency survives as a separate body it is, like the rest of the public sector, at a crossroads.

Mr Roberts believes that the gloomy public spending climate provides an opportunity to develop local government’s
improvement drive. This is because, he believes, the IDeA’s peer-led improvement model can, to a greater extent, substitute what has become an increasingly costly inspection and regulation regime.

“We are going into a period of major reduction in central government and that seems to apply both to inspection and regulation but also to the way that it sends out instructions and support into the field,” he says.

We need to build forms of assurance that are not so reliant on a blanket approach

Paul Roberts, managing director of the IDeA

Mr Roberts has first-hand knowledge of how intervention works. While at Capita, he headed the public services consultancy’s team at Haringey LBC, taking the director of education’s role at the troubled north London borough.

But times have changed, he says: “There is, I believe, a very broad consensus about the fact that the recent history of extension of regulation is not sustainable.”

In its Setting the Pace consultation paper, the IDeA is mounting a case for a different, quality assurance approach. In a development of the IDeA’s peer-led improvement approach, practitioners from other authorities would provide oversight, rather than external inspectors.

“We need to build new forms of assurance that are not so reliant on such a blanket approach to widespread inspection and regulation,” he says.

Such an approach provides potentially much better value for money, he insists. “First and most immediately, local authorities will spend much less time and money preparing the inputs for inspection.

“We think it’s right and will deliver assurance and quality, but we also think it will save money.”

However, he does not see a future where regulation and intervention are off the agenda. “Some of the more ambitious claims about doing away with inspection and regulation are probably not realistic and I can’t see that any government will not want to retain that ability to inspect.”

And, he says, he wouldn’t take issue with intervention in the right circumstances.

“It is absolutely proper in terms of use of public funds that there are certain areas that are subject to routine inspection. However, I would take issue with using that as the best way of achieving improvement.

“If you can have good conversations, you can better solve the problems by the sector being given some space to support itself.”

This is the moment to be bold, for some form of national improvement and development architecture

Paul Roberts, managing director of the IDeA

To make it work, central government will have to learn to trust councils more. “One of the problems has been that central government has waited for local government to fail and has then moved in. We have to make sure that we identify the potential failures and move quickly.”

While acknowledging the valuable work carried out by the regional improvement and efficiency partnerships, he believes that there is no question about the need for a national agency like the IDeA. “It would be foolish to have nine IDeAs,” he says on the grounds that it is more efficient to have a single national repository of expertise in best practice.

The challenges faced by peers in neighbouring authorities might not be the most relevant, he adds, drawing on his personal experience as a director.

“When I was at Nottingham, I might have been more interested in Southampton or Portsmouth because they would have similar problems.

“This is the moment to be bold, for some form of national improvement and development architecture.”

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