Research Project

Through the Looking Glass: Putting citizens at the heart of the assessment process
21 July, 2010

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In the wake of the Coalition Government’s decision to scrap the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA), NLGN is today calling for remaining inspection regimes to be slimmed down and for local citizens to play a greater role in driving up standards. It also called for greater responsibility for local government in improving its own performance.

Publishing a on the future of public service inspection, NLGN warns that wholesale abolition of assessment regimes could risk “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and instead suggests that inspections of key services should move to a ‘risk-based’ weighted approach that would offer intensive support to underperforming councils but much more infrequent and lighter inspection to those performing well.

Having only been in place since 2009, CAA has been criticised for being too expensive and overly burdensome. A number of local authorities have publicly announced that they will limit the amount of time afforded to collating data for the inspectorate. Government plans to scrap CAA may lead to local authorities only being held to account through elections and through more transparent listing of their spending and decision making.

Under NLGN’s model, citizens would be encouraged to take a greater role in service provision and in holding their public services to account. They would be able to petition the LGA if they feel that the quality of a specific local service is declining or is not up-to-standards and if the internal procedure of the council or service is not satisfactory. Citizens would also be given access to more transparent information on how council money is spent, as a means of strengthening local democracy, and be invited to act as “bare-foot” assessors of local services.

The report also points towards a redefined role for the Audit Commission, which would focus more on financial auditing functions and on being a gate-keeper for other inspectorates such as OFSTED and the Care Quality Commission.

The local government family, led by the LGA, would take on a greater role in supporting underperforming councils and providing peer-led reviews.

Author of the report and NLGN Researcher Olivier Roth said:

“Each year local authorities spend around £150 billion of public money and it is therefore fundamental how we assess our public services and allow citizens a fair voice in monitoring them. We should enhance the role that citizens can play in holding their local public services to account through transparency and increased citizen engagement. Transparency and clear accountability must sit at the heart of the response, so that citizens have the necessary tools with which to hold elected politicians and officials to account. Effective assessment can underpin local democracy.

“One of the lessons of CAA is that adversarial and external inspections can only take improvement so far. For improvement to be real and lasting, it has to be embraced by the organisation attempting to improve. It is local government that possesses the experience, the skills and the mindset to identify possible improvements, and to find the right solutions to enable them. The assessment process should be owned by the local government family, as it possesses the required democratic legitimacy, buy in, and know-how needed to implement real and substantial changes.”

At the report launch, Cllr David Parsons praised the report as “a timely contribution to the debate on the future of audit and inspection.” Gareth Davies affirmed the report’s thesis that “independent local audit is fundamentally important” and Dr. Ita O’Donovan declared that we need to be “much more imaginative at the local level” as we decide upon the future of audit and assessment.

Publication Date: 21 July 2010
ISBN: 978 1 903447 88 8
Authored by: Olivier Roth

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