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Tony Travers

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The government's new indicators give an insight into Whitehall 's concerns

The government has published its New performance framework for local authorities & local authority partnerships, which is the next stage in Whitehall's efforts to distance itself from years of over-egged targets and best value indicators. Communities and local government secretary Hazel Blears has cut the number of performance indicators to 198. This is a large number, but much smaller than the previous total.

Local strategic partnerships for single-tier and county councils will be required to report on all of the indicators. Most of the performance measures are old soldiers returning to fight a new kind of war. Other providers, including the police and primary care trusts, will be required to contribute towards the delivery of negotiated targets. Such new targets will be negotiated through local area agreements.

The suite of new indicators tells us much about the needs and desires of central government. The new list, which ranges from 'serious knife crime rate' via 'number of Sure Start children centres' to 'engagement with the arts' is a revealing measure ofWhitehallconcerns. There are measures of public sector inputs, processes and outputs, and also of private sector factors such as 'average earnings of employees'.

Taken together, the measures suggest a government that is worried about the physical, emotional and social conditions of modernBritain. The implication is that ministers think we are fat, violent and uncultured, that we are unkind to children and are wrecking the environment. It is not an encouraging set of implications.

It is also fascinating to observe what ministers are unwilling to see tested that is, where there are no indicators. There is no mention of measures of hospital cleanliness, for example. This is odd, given that councils could almost certainly do better than the NHS at keeping patients clean and healthy. There are also downright oddities, such as the fact that only 'domestic' murders appear as a measure of 'safer communities'. 'Fair treatment by local services' is to be measured, but not that ofWhitehallproviders. Judged by these indicators, central government is troubled and uncertain.

Perhaps the time has come for agreed targets about the performance ofWhitehalldepartments, with annual performance measures. Indicators such as 'number of occasions people made to feel suspicious by utterance of national politician on radio or TV' or 'use of weird jargon to describe commonsense activities' might be appropriate.

More seriously, it is good thatWhitehallhas realised target overkill had become a serious problem. But there is so much further to go. Cutting the number of recently introduced targets and indicators to a smaller number is progress, but only of sorts. There are countless ways in which councils and other service providers are tied to central control, the most grievous of which is tax capping. Ms Blears' new framework is a laudable step in the right direction, but it is only a small one.

Tony Travers, Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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