Best Value under scrutiny - once again

12 Jul 01
About the only thing that provokes a consensus on Best Value is the need for change.

13 July 2001

Councils have been complaining for some time now that the approach adopted by the government has been too heavy-handed when it comes to inspection and service. Several academics have been nodding in agreement from the sidelines.

Surprisingly, ministers have agreed. While much of the post-election public sector debate has been about Labour's unclear plans on using the private sector in developing services, some ministers – step forward Stephen Byers – have been making soothing noises about the need to reform the way Labour does things at local level.

Earlier this month he said the government would cut the amount of bureaucracy within the Best Value system. This week that process of slashing red tape will begin.

On July 18, the Audit Commission will publish its Strategy review consultation, which will pave the way for a fundamental overhaul of the system.

Proposals up for discussion include a new corporate governance inspection for councils that could ultimately displace individual service health checks.

These would focus on the general state of the council and the quality of services provided and would also assess the role of senior council figures, executives and political leaders, and how well they lead and manage their individual authorities. As fewer and fewer service inspections are carried out each year, some feel these could become the norm.

The document will also prompt the launch of up to 30 'pathfinder experiments' in November this year that

will try to bridge the gap between audit and inspection, and place the process in the hands of one person, combining both roles.

These experiments will take place across England and Wales and in all kinds of councils. If these prove successful they could become the templates for a new system to be rolled out across the country within 12 months.

'If they work like we think they will work, we would be prepared to change,' Sir Andrew Foster, the Audit Commission controller, told Public Finance.

The much-loathed one-line 'unlikely to improve' assessment found on some inspection reports could consequently disappear. Foster conceded that such an assessment can prove 'de-motivating', although the star system to grade councils will remain.

The commission will also argue for closer relations between all the inspectorate agencies so that local authorities do not suffer from inspection overload, potentially being visited by Best Value inspectors, Ofsted and the Social Services Inspectorate in a matter of months.

All these address concerns held by councils as well as others that have surfaced over the past few months.

Foster is keen to hammer home the message that the commission is an organisation able to listen and act upon criticism. 'We are pretty confident that a lot of these proposals will be acceptable to people,' says Foster.

The whole tenor of the document will stress the need for a 'lighter touch' when it comes to inspection, reflecting new ministerial thinking on the issue.

Many of these concerns have been highlighted prior to the launch of the consultation document. The local authority chief executives' organisation, Solace, published a highly critical report in May, and councils' criticisms echo complaints heard by Professor Steve Martin, director of the local and regional unit at the University of Cardiff.

His unit is carrying out a government-backed five-year study into Best Value. Combining audit and inspection, he says, 'seems fairly common sense', and he backs the need for 'joined-up inspectorates'.

Underpinning all these possible reforms will be the government's new mantra of 'delivery, delivery, delivery'.

The quid pro quo for councils for the concessions made by the commission and by implication, ministers, on the Best Value process will be for them to stop whining about the mechanics of Best Value and deliver decent services to residents.

The focus will not be so much on how things are done but what results they produce. A government that has committed itself to a wholesale improvement in the quality of the public services is desperate for its reforms to be carried out at local level.

'It is not the process that matters, it is how things have got better for the users of services,' says Foster. This, he believes, is the 'absolutely critical test'. The ultimate arbiter of whether or not Best Value is a success will be the local resident.

These are all things that it is hard for any self-respecting council to disagree with; but for services to improve, in the week that Hackney faced the renewed wrath of ministers, councils will also have to improve.

To do so, Foster believes they will have to learn to become more self-critical. Instead of finding fault in the system they will need to find fault in themselves.

If the consultation, which ends in three months' time, and the commission deliver the reforms councils want on Best Value, they may find they have no excuses left. Soon they will have to deliver as well.


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