Tough challenges lie ahead for local government but the Improvement & Development Agency’s new managing director, Rob Whiteman, is in a buoyant mood.
After signing off as Barking & Dagenham LBC chief executive amidst euphoric scenes as the BNP was wiped off the council on 6 May, Mr Whiteman can now for the first time speak in detail about his new brief.
Speaking to LGC, he enthusiastically maps out his vision for the agency, which he hopes, despite shrinking budgets, will convince Whitehall to lift inspection and regulation burdens and hand councils a greater role in regulating themselves - a prize the sector has long pursued.
Construction of his vision has been kick-started by an energetic whistle-stop tour, which he has used to gather the opinions of senior council figures as he develops his five-year plan for the agency.
We constantly find ourselves asking ourselves in London: “Do we need 32 finance departments, and 32 HR departments?”
Whiteman on shared services
Key to achieving his vision will be how the sector manages its data, which Mr Whiteman describes as a “bedrock issue”. The IDeA starts today with the launch of a new online tool.
“The state of local authority data is patchy. Helping authorities have better data provides a strong argument for having less audit and inspection,” he asserts.
“We need to improve the quality of our data because we are going to need to use benchmarking information even more. I would like to get to a position relatively quickly where … we have a national benchmarking system within local government.”
On the surface, data quality sounds like an issue for desk-bound officials to pore over, rather than residents.
But as Mr Whiteman - a professionally accredited accountant - points out, better data will drive down the unit costs of council services and save the taxpayer money.
We can do much better preventative work if we have joint commissioning and I know from going around the country that lots of councils are doing good work on this.
Whiteman on joint commissioning
Moreover, calls for better council data sets come from the top, with ministers calling on all nine regional improvement and efficiency partnerships to outline how they will respond to the benchmarking recommendations in the Operational Efficiency Programme.
While improved data sets can only serve local government and residents better, Mr Whiteman is adamant that, regardless of such considerations, the inspection regime is not fit for purpose.
He says there are some areas where independent inspectors are critical, such as safeguarding children’s services, but top-down inspection and regulation can no longer be all-embracing.
“The idea that everything is the subject of audit and regulation is clapped out. Authorities think it is a waste of money and does not add value. We need to move to a mixed system,” says Mr Whiteman.
Local authorities deserve a lot of credit for the work they have done in safeguarding their areas from the recession. People have invested in skills, in apprenticeships, they have tried to work with businesses.
Whiteman on the recession
He also cites his frustrations about the “adversarial” relationship that has developed between councils and Ofsted. “Ten years ago, councils would have contacted the social services inspectorate to seek advice if they had issues around children’s services, but they would not have that relationship with Ofsted.
“People say it has become so adversarial that they would not ask Ofsted in because it would be used against them rather than help them to improve,” he says.
Mr Whiteman’s consultation, the results of which will be published in the coming months, looked at a suite of areas, from producing new funding models for housing to maximising value for money from procurement and boosting integration with the NHS.
As a long-standing devotee of local government innovation, the University of Essex economics and history graduate is tailor-made to head local government’s in-house improvement hub.
If I go to my GPs’ they close at 4.30 - except on the days when they don’t open at all. I do think that if a local councillor were responsible for those sorts of areas, a lot of local health services would be more responsive to customer need.
Whiteman on councillors and NHS services
Previous positions include sitting on a range of highly regarded innovation committees, including the government’s Innovation Council and the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts’ innovation lab.
In his five-year stewardship at Barking & Dagenham, he paved the way for the council to pilot both the new wave of local area agreements and the comprehensive area assessment.
He also oversaw the council’s improvement from a two-star “improving adequately” to a four-star “improving strongly” authority by 2008 under the old comprehensive performance assessment.
Mr Whiteman is confident that the tight settlements forecast for future years can be seen as an opportunity for the sector to assert itself.
“You don’t waste the opportunity of a good crisis,” he says. “Although very tough decisions have to be made, there is an opportunity for local government to build its confidence about finding its own way and challenging itself on its performance.”
Mr Whiteman points to more joint commissioning with public sector partners and a greater development of the shared services agenda as just a couple of areas where big efficiencies can be made, and he talks enthusiastically about the possibilities of Total Place.
I see my role as making sure the Local Government Association Group as a whole has a seamless offer about improvement. We need to get closer with other parts of the group, not just to save money, but to produce that offer.
Whiteman on the future of the LGA family
The adage about wasting a good crisis does not extend only to councils but to the IDeA itself. Mr Whiteman admits the agency will have to deliver less and sharpen the focus on priorities.
“We must take a reduction in the revenue support grant, which is equal to the sort of reduction that the sector faces,” he says.
“So the amount of coverage that we give to different service areas will reduce but the things that we focus on will be the things that come out of the consultation exercise. We will do fewer things better.”
And if all that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Mr Whiteman is advising the rescue operation at Doncaster MBC. It may well turn out to be a busy summer.
Mr Whiteman is speaking at an LGC and NLGN conference on 24 June