Let the sector assess its own performance
3 August, 2010

Following the abolition of the CAA, a new study from the New Local Government Network now argues for area-wide assessments, overseen by the sector itself through the Local Government Group. Its author, Oliver Roth, presents the case.

Each year in the UK, around £150bn is spent on public services. And how that money is used has a profound impact on the lives of UK citizens.

As taxpayers, they should be entitled to know that their money is being spent efficiently, ethically, and productively.

As voters, they should be reassured that the individuals they elect will be held to the highest standards of behaviour.

This is the first reason – accountability. So, why have an assessment process at all?

In these times of public service cuts, wouldn’t it be easier, and cheaper, to just let government officials get on with their work? The answer is no.

The second reason is even more important. The fundamental purpose of an assessment regime should be to ensure that public services in an area improve outcomes for citizens.

As taxpayers, citizens are the principal funders of public services. As service-users they are the recipients. As voters, they elect the people who will ensure that the provision and delivery of services are satisfactory. Assessment regimes should, therefore, ensure that citizens outcomes in an area are positive, efficient and, where possible, improving.

Finally, assessment should be about protecting vulnerable individuals being cared for by the state, and ensuring there are some universal minimum standards in key services across the country.

Accountability might just be the least problematic aspect of assessment. E-transparency, whereby local authorities publish online the salaries and expenses of its highest earners, as well as intelligible revenue and expenditure information, would enable concerned citizens to understand the financial realities local authorities operate in.

It would also help restore some of the trust between citizens and politicians. Ensuring positive outcomes for citizens in an area through an effective delivery of public services is a slightly more complex proposition, but it should be underpinned by one fundamental principle – the devolvement of assessment from central government and inspectorates to the Local Government Group and citizens.

NLGN, therefore, argues for area-wide self-assessments, focused on citizen experiences and the outcomes that partnerships produce. This process should be overseen by the Local Government Group, which would use these self-assessments to conduct tailored, proportionate, risk-based peer-reviews.

Citizens, moreover, should also play a prominent role in this process – at the start, through their involvement in drafting community strategies, in the middle, as users of services, and at the end, as de facto assessors.

There is a wide range of innovative techniques designed to gather their views and experiences, and these should be normalised as part of the assessment process. All this would, in turn, create a virtuous cycle, whereby strong citizen engagement would lead to a stronger democratic mandate for local government, thereby reducing the need for central interference which, in turn, would lead to a stronger local democratic culture.

It would reduce costs, burdens, and help ensure positive outcomes for citizens. And that’s what assessment is for.


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