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Inspectors online: the new watchdog regime

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By David Williams

9 December 2009

It’s supposed to be lighter touch but it is certainly tougher. The Audit Commission’s first area assessments were revealed this week – and put up on the Oneplace website for everyone to see. David Williams reports

The Audit Commission’s new Oneplace website, launched on December 9, is an impressively executed exercise in opening up the complex business of -government to the public.

The site serves as the face of the watchdog’s new Comprehensive Area Assessment inspection regime, which brings together the work of inspectorates covering health services, councils, schools, and the criminal justice system.

It is designed to be comprehensive and accessible for everyone from the general public to specialists. It is also satisfyingly low on jargon. As the commission’s chief executive, Steve Bundred, put it: ‘There’s not a weasel word to be found in it.’

So far, so sensible. But more significantly, Oneplace is a product of the moment – an attempt by regulators who have spent most of 2009 under fire to show they can help government become leaner, more innovative, more productive and more joined-up.

Its focus on locally agreed priorities, covering broad topics such as prosperity, sustainability and reducing health inequalities, fits with arguments for more independence for councils. Oneplace’s commitment to making authorities more accountable to the public chimes with the Conservatives’ take on localism, and their pledge to publish more data online.

Above all, the commission underlines how the Oneplace approach fits with Total Place. This government-run pilot scheme promises to generate savings and encourage new ways of working by identifying all spending in an area.

Oneplace analyses the results of CAA inspections and evaluates partnerships of authorities in England. It awards ‘green flags’ for outstanding and successful examples of innovation. Care Quality Commission chief executive Cynthia Bower singled out Hackney, where collaboration between the borough council and primary care trust had reduced a high infant mortality rate. In Devon, joint working by the police and council also won a green flag for cracking down on domestic violence.
Conversely, ‘red flags’ denote areas where agencies need to act to improve a failing service. Haringey was, perhaps inevitably, given a red flag for its mechanisms for safeguarding children. A year ago, multi-agency failings were blamed for the death of Baby Peter.

Bundred stressed how Oneplace also addresses the increasingly pressing need to cut costs. He highlighted Leicestershire, where agencies won a green flag for saving £443,000 by collaborating on road improvement contracts.

Audit Commission chair Michael O’Higgins said both Total Place and Oneplace showed how authorities could save money by focusing ‘not on the silos of government but on the impact locally’.
And it is worth noting that the regulators are leading by example. Oneplace is itself innovative, rooted in partnership working, and looks to encourage efficiency by breaking down the artificial barriers between, in this case, overlapping inspectorates.

It is not surprising that the commission is keen to align Total Place and Oneplace because, crucially, the former has the full backing of both major parties.

That is a luxury Oneplace has yet to enjoy: shadow communities and local government secretary Caroline Spelman has renewed the Tory promise to abolish the CAA. She damned the ‘army of clipboard inspectors’ who increase bureaucracy while failing to protect frontline services or keep taxes low.

Local authorities maintain that the system is still too much of a drain on resources. Two of the most high-profile Tory authorities, the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Hammersmith & Fulham, have said they will limit the amount of staff time spent on CAA assessments next year.

‘It still seems to us that the first year of CAA has been burdensome for councils,’ Local Government Association senior consultant Nick Easton told Public Finance. ‘This may be in part explained by the fact that it was the first year, but we are looking for a lighter-touch approach in year two.’

In September, an LGA survey found that just one in ten councils believed regulation had become less intrusive under CAA, while 40% said it had become more time-consuming.

Some will surely feel hard done by under the new organisational assessments for councils and fire authorities, which feed into Oneplace. The star rating system has gone, replaced by grades of one to four, lowest to highest. And the bar has been raised: last year more than 60 authorities received the maximum four stars, but only 15 achieved top marks this year.

The 12 authorities with the worst rating, particularly those leading partnerships given red flags, are unlikely to welcome the new system. In Doncaster, the city council was given the lowest possible score, while Oneplace added red flags for poor children’s prospects and failure to provide housing for those most in need. Mayor Peter Davies admitted there was ‘room for improvement’ but said the assessment did not convey an accurate picture of Doncaster’s performance.

Andy Sawford, chief executive of the Local Government Information Unit, said council leaders were still telling him their hands were tied. ‘They still feel they have too many inspectors bobbing around, still feel they can’t get on with their job, and that the measures of performance are not the right ones.’
The first set of results also suggests Oneplace is loaded against district councils. Nine of the 12 bottom performers were second-tier authorities, compared to just four of the 15 top scorers.

Bundred insisted that the website will win over the doubters. ‘As people start to use this website, they will see it’s a really powerful tool for improvement… it will increase the pressure on local public bodies to take some action.’

Sawford said that for all the thundering opposition rhetoric on red tape, Oneplace could well survive a Tory administration. No new government would want to reduce access to information. But it would take a cultural shift before a new breed of citizen auditors started taking responsibility for their councils.

If Oneplace proves to be expensive to keep up to date, however, it could still be an easy target for a new government looking for an eye-catching saving.

‘It doesn’t matter how great the website is. The proof of the pudding will be: do the public look at it and show interest in it,’ said Sawford. ‘If I’m down the Dog and Duck, do I give it the time of day? What benefit is there to me, and the performance of the public sector?’

The future of local authority regulation could depend on the public’s reaction.

Best authorities
Camden LBC
Chorley BC
City of London Corporation
Hammersmith & Fulham LBC
Hampshire CC
Kensington & Chelsea RBC
Kent CC
Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service
Leicestershire CC
Rushcliffe BC
Sevenoaks DC
Staffordshire Moorlands DC
Tameside MBC
Wandsworth LBC
Westminster City Council

Worst authorities
Ashfield DC
Boston BC
Brentwood BC
Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service
Craven DC
Doncaster MBC
Eastbourne BC
Forest of Dean DC
Haringey LBC
Mendip DC
Mid Devon DC
West Somerset DC


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