With the abolition of the CAA, how should we assess the £150bn spent by local authorities each year? How do we ensure that this money is spent ethically, productively and efficiently? How do we guarantee that schools are not deficient, that hospitals are clean and that children in care are looked after?
How quickly things change. It was barely six months ago that Gordon Brown was still prime minister, that cuts in the public finances were still a storm brewing on the horizon, and that most of the country thought England could win the World Cup. Today, we find ourselves with a coalition government, 25% cuts affecting the whole of the public sector, and the state of the England team, well, that deserves its own dedicated blog.
The landscape in local government has also changed profoundly: primary care trusts are being scrapped, schools are being ‘freed’, budgets are being slashed, and local authorities are expected to empower citizens and communities to provide the services their diminished resources prevent them from providing. And the mechanism that was created to oversee this process? Scrapped as well.
Comprehensive Area Assessments (CAA) were the latest version of central government’s attempts to enforce performance management on local government: Ofsted inspected schools and published league tables, the Care Quality Commission assessed hospitals, Her Majesty’s inspectorates took care of various facets of the justice system, and the Audit Commission oversaw local authorities’ performances, as well as the whole CAA process.
The new coalition government decided that this was both too expensive and too, well, comprehensive. Off it went. Only to be replaced by… nothing yet.
Presented with such a clean slate, how should we assess the £150bn spent by local authorities each year? How do we ensure that this money is spent ethically, productively and efficiently? How do we guarantee that schools are not deficient, that hospitals are clean and that children in care are looked after?
This isn’t simply about trying to make sure that tragedies such as the death of baby Peter do not happen again, it also about ensuring that councils are forward looking, that they deliver on their promises and that they communicate with their citizens and service-users in order to provide them with the best possible (and affordable) services.
Assessment serves multiple purposes: it holds local government accountable for the way it manages its finances and for the behaviour of elected members, and it helps ensure positive outcomes for citizens within an area.
The first of these purposes, accountability, can be achieved through a mixture of rigorous auditing, to be conducted either by the Audit Commission or an accredited auditing firm, and e-transparency, through the online publication of local authorities’ highest salaries, individual expenses, revenue streams, spending and commissioning contracts. These measures would not only create transparency and ensure ethical behaviour, they would also mean that public debate surrounding the role and actions of local authorities was informed by the financial realities in which they operate.
The second of these purposes, citizen outcomes, is more complex, and requires actions by different actors across an area. A simple example: reducing obesity requires efforts from schools (nutritional education, PE classes), the health sector (detection of early indicators of obesity), local authorities (sports areas, campaigns) and communities, private companies and parents.
This is true for obesity, but also for most other problems affecting an area: community safety, pollution, worklessness… It’s therefore unrealistic for central government to ask local authorities, though the imposition of national indicators, to reduce obesity/crime/unemployment, and for this to be monitored through hard targets.
Instead, councils should act as both leaders and facilitators in this process: they should agree key outcomes with citizens, and work in partnership with the relevant actors in an area to achieve those outcomes.
The process of assessment should therefore be taken away from inspectorates and central government, and placed instead into the hands of the local government family. The Local Government Group should oversee the following process: area self-assessments, whereby an area sets-out the outcomes it has agreed with its citizens, and the progress it is making against those; peer reviews, where authorities or services are flailing; and early intervention, where authorities or services are failing.
This whole process should be based around citizens, their needs, expectations, and experiences. They should be at the start, the end, and the centre of the process.
Finally, special attention should be paid to vulnerable individuals dependent on key services: children or the elderly in care, for example. For these key sectors, the relevant inspectorates should be retained, albeit with changes in the way they operate. Firstly, the inspections should focus on the priorities agreed by local authorities, and on protecting vulnerable individuals.
Secondly, they should do so in cooperation with the LG Group. Finally, they should focus resources on the services or areas where they are most needed through a risk-based approach.
This could be achieved through a system of ‘random weighted inspections’: the random element would ensure that inspections can’t be gamed, while the sampled element would mean that excellent authorities would be free from inspection, while poorly performing ones would be more likely to be inspected.
Such a system would achieve the purposes of assessment, foster local democracy, and empower local communities and citizens, at a much reduced cost.