Since its creation in the early 1980s, the Audit Commission has enjoyed a high public profile. Yet, in spite of its ability to catch a headline, a study has found most councillors and some officers do not understand the exact purpose and role of the commission.
The independent study, funded by the Economic & Social Research Council, had three main objectives. These were to ascertain:
-- How the commission mediates central/
local government relations through its duty to promote value-for-money and accountability in local service delivery
-- How different types of councils incorporate research, advice and guidance carried out by the Audit Commission into their policy making and implementation strategies.
The study held interviews with 119 councillors and officers, selected from across a range of single and two-tier councils in England.
The findings indicated officers were generally better informed than members. The best informed were financial officers or those who had responsibility for audit and performance management. As a group, non-executive members proved the least well-informed.
Overall, because of their experience with the council's auditors - who were widely seen as providing a professional service - respondents also held the Audit Commission in high esteem. Yet several respondents who had encountered the best value inspectors were less complimentary and several had modified their opinion of the Audit Commission following a best value inspection.
Turning to the second objective, the Audit Commission is an independent expert advising both central and local government and promoting a common understanding of what constitutes exemplary practice in the management of councils.
By doing so, the commission mediates central/local government relations in several ways:
-- It advises councils on how best to implement new government legislation
-- It advises government on matters such as service improvements, generally through the judgments made by auditors and inspectors when verifying that councils are complying with their statutory obligations
-- It acts on the behalf of the government and the public in order to verify councils' actions.
While both officers and members welcomed the Audit Commission's advice, both groups frequently observed a risk that its approach implied a one-size-fits-all attitude. Officers and members also questioned the value of performance league tables based on this information.
Despite these concerns, both members and officers welcomed the commission and said they welcomed the opportunity it gave the council to be 'checked out' by an independent expert.
Lastly, Audit Commission advice and guidance enters local government policy and implementation processes by several routes, including the commission's conventional role in advising councils of how to implement new legislation and by best value inspection and auditors' reports.
It was apparent that officers looked to the commission for advice on new methods of working. Yet in terms of advice on policy items, practitioners stated the commission was only one of several sources they draw upon.
For the Audit Commission itself the message is mixed. Members and officers hold the commission in high regard especially for its audit work and value for money advice. Yet its reputation appears under threat from the best value regime and comprehensive performance assessments.
Over the past 20 years the Audit Commission has strived to maintain its independence from both central and local government. Yet, as the government puts increasing responsibility on the commission to regulate councils, can it retain its reputation for independence and even-handedness?
Dr Josephine Kelly
Researcher, Southampton Institute