Onwards and upwards, by Ged Curran

27 Oct 05
The London Borough of Merton was dreading the new-look CPA, which appeared to threaten all the improvements it had made. But it was pleasantly surprised when the final changes were revealed

28 October 2005

The London Borough of Merton was dreading the new-look CPA, which appeared to threaten all the improvements it had made. But it was pleasantly surprised when the final changes were revealed

This could have been a very different article. It was going to be a firm condemnation of the Audit Commission's proposed changes to the Comprehensive Performance Assessment. But almost as soon as I started to write, the commission issued the single tier and county councils' framework for 2005 and I stopped with my fingers poised above the keyboard.

Why the pause for thought? Well, it is clear that the commission has listened to people's concerns, and the final shape of the CPA will not cause many of the problems we feared in Merton and other London councils.

Our concerns were not about the principle of the CPA. While we had criticisms of the original framework — particularly the incentive for 'points chasing' and anomalies such as authorities with the same score being categorised differently — it helped us to shape an improvement plan.

Also, because the previous system was easily understood by staff, it helped us to bring about the cultural change needed to allow us to improve. And it helped us to focus our effort and investment on the areas most in need of change without suffering penalties for the areas we chose to leave fallow.

Merton focused on social services and education. And to good effect. Our social services are the fastest improving in the country, moving from being in special measures to two stars in record time. The trade-off was that our three-year business plan left investment in housing, leisure and cultural services until year three and beyond.

It is also true that the old CPA system fitted well with our local priorities, as social services and education were scored more highly than other areas. Nonetheless, leaving self-interest aside, we recognised that changes were needed to make the system fairer.

Our work under the old regime paid off, and we moved from 'weak' to 'fair'. But our increased capacity to improve will not be recognised until we receive our next corporate assessment in 2007. However, an Improvement and Development Agency peer review in spring 2005 indicated that we had made progress and that our hard work to achieve 'good' might well have paid off at the next assessment.

It was, therefore, with some dread that we anticipated changes to the CPA that could have dropped us back to 'poor', despite the progress we had made. This possibility resulted from the proposal that if two or more services had low scores — and our housing and cultural services would have got low scores — the authority would be rated 'poor' overall. That would have made it much harder for us to continue the culture change within the organisation and to motivate staff to continue improving services for our residents.

In Merton, we accepted the need for reform and the need to set the bar higher, but felt that the proposals introduced too much change too quickly.

I was also worried that they would result in a more complex system that would be difficult to communicate to staff. The proposals would have meant marking down councils that were acknowledged to have improved, and this would send out strange messages to the public and demoralise staff. In this way, it looked as though the CPA was going to undermine, rather than drive, improvement.

We also thought that if the system was going to change, it would be wrong to use the current labels of 'poor' to 'excellent'. It would look like the same system to the outside world even though it was different. But the commission has ditched the old labels and gone for a star system, which we are happy with.

I was particularly worried about the threat to impose uniform national thresholds across the performance indicators. It is therefore good that the principle has been established that some things are harder to deliver in some regional contexts, and so regional-specific thresholds have been set.

Unfortunately, we think that doing this only for housing services is not taking the principle far enough. We would like to see it adopted for issues such as waste management and transport, which are particularly thorny issues for London boroughs.

While we might have issues with some of the thresholds set for services, overall we welcome their introduction because they bring clarity about what standards of service delivery local people can expect. And if the CPA is about anything, it must be about better services for our residents.

All in all, great credit to the Audit Commission for listening. I hope it can now start thinking about the next steps and that, in tune with the government's plan to cut the burden of regulation, this will lead to peer reviews.

Until that day arrives, we'd like to see a truly modern inspection and regulation regime in operation, where regulators work together to promote improvement in as unobtrusive and proportionate a way as possible.

Ged Curran is the chief executive of the London Borough of Merton