Put to the test

6 Mar 09
VIVIENNE RUSSELL | The Comprehensive Performance Assessment is dead. Long live the Comprehensive Area Assessment.

The Comprehensive Performance Assessment is dead. Long live the Comprehensive Area Assessment.

When the CPA began, back in 2002, it represented an entirely new approach to judging how well a council was doing its many jobs. Audit Commission inspectors shone a light on areas of poor performance and asked tough questions about capacity for improvement.

Councils responded with gusto. So much so that, after just three years, the CPA got tougher. Dubbed the ‘Harder Test’, the new regime brought in star ratings and direction of travel statements, all underpinned by a stronger emphasis on the crucial area of value for money.

There is much for auditors and councils to take pride in. The final set of CPA results confirmed a pattern of year-on-year improvement. No council has received the lowest rating of zero stars for the past three years, 62 enjoy four-star status and a record 35 are rated as ‘improving strongly’.

But Audit Commission chief executive Steve Bundred has taken time out from the CPA celebrations to issue dire warnings of things to come. He says government debt could hit ‘Armageddon’ levels and public sector managers need to start preparing now to protect services against inevitable budget cuts.

It is perhaps a cruel irony that the seven years of the CPA coincided with a period of sustained economic growth and public service investment. The regime ends its life in a radically different financial climate from that in which it was born.

The recession shows no sign of letting up and the government continues to firefight. Serious questions are being asked about the Treasury’s ability to manage us out of the crisis.

The incoming CAA – two years in gestation – is a child of the good times. It ushers in a radical shift in emphasis. Regulation will be lighter-touch, citizen-focused and cross-cutting.

But is it the right instrument for a world where public services face the very real prospect of swingeing cuts? Now more than ever we need our regulators to be keeping services under a watchful eye.

Whether the CAA is as right for today as the CPA was for yesterday will be the hardest test of all.

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