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Wrench public service inspection away from Whitehall and hand it over to local communities
Adam Lent, Director, NLGN, 9 July, 2019

What is the point of public service inspectorates like Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission? The standard line is that they are there to make sure public sector bodies offer the very best to the communities they serve. But this raises a challenging but rarely asked question: why not let the communities do the inspecting themselves then?

The logic behind this question is far from easy to dismiss.

It is self-evident that communities are far more likely to know what they want from a public service than a government agency made up of civil servants based in Central London. Equally, communities are better able to assess a service in line with their local needs and aspirations than a body applying a set of universal criteria across thousands of schools, hospitals and care homes all working in very different contexts.

An even more telling point is the plethora of opportunities for improvement that are missed with our current model of inspection. As Jessica Studdert and I explained in The Community Paradigm, many public sector bodies are discovering that empowering communities is the key to breaking down silos, focusing on outcomes and enabling a shift to prevention. It is in unleashing the hidden skills, assets and drive in our communities that we can begin to weaken the hold of ‘wicked issues’. But inspectors swooping in and out every few years assessing against centrally set criteria cannot hope to identify the possibilities for ongoing holistic improvement that could be provided by a community-led approach.

What might such an approach look like in practice? One could imagine panels with a remit to inspect against criteria for all public services in an area. The panels would be made up of local people and would use participatory and deliberative methods to set their inspection criteria and develop their plans. Most importantly, they would be tasked with ongoing improvement, not just one-off inspection. The panels would also aim to shift whole systems towards a more preventative approach. To that end, they would build deep, consistent relationships with public sector leaders in their area based on dialogue and support rather than the shock and awe that is a prominent characteristic of the current system.

Of course, there will be objections to such a significant reform. The most obvious is that ‘ordinary’ people lack the motivation and the expertise to take on such an important role. But extensive anecdotal and research evidence shows that when people are given real influence, they are extremely keen to engage in efforts to improve their areas. As for knowledge, clearly any local panel would be aided by experts offering technical advice and ensuring that the legal and safeguarding aspects of inspectors’ work is guaranteed. Indeed, inspection teams themselves would, of necessity, include specialist professionals working alongside members of the public and service users with relevant needs. But the important point is that it is the local community not a distant band of specialists who set the strategy and goals of any such body.

A more telling challenge might be the justified fear of the potential loss of independence for inspectors. Could a community-led inspectorate engaged in ongoing dialogue not be co-opted by the local public sector whose leaders they may know well? This is indeed a risk and one that would need to be controlled for. One of the best ways of doing that is to ensure that such bodies are genuinely led by members of the public as they are less likely to have direct relationships to public sector leaders than professional public servants. The other is to ensure that local inspectorates maintain an open, participative approach to the decisions they make.

Ofsted and co. are emblematic of that awkward and increasingly dysfunctional marriage of top-down control and user choice that was cooked up in the 1990s and which still rules today – as much by inertia as design. But as both state and market models of public services prove unfit to meet the challenge of rising demand, growing numbers of public servants are looking to ‘communitisation’ as a more effective solution. Once national politicians catch up with this frontline trend, it seems inevitable that the inspectorates will be rethought.

This article first appeared in The Municipal Journal on 8th July 2019.