Thursday, February 22, 2007

Local Authority Performance "Improving"...

...except here
The Audit Commission has just published its updated Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) for English local authorities. According to them, things are looking pretty good, with 79% of councils turning in a 3 or 4 star performance overall, a 9% increase on last year.

Now, there's no doubt that some councils are doing an excellent job in difficult circumstances. For example, long-time star Westminster has single mindedly focused on value for money, and has saved taxpayers millions through renegotiating supplier contracts and reorganising workflows.

Which is especially impressive because in general, value for money (vfm) is a serious problem. Even on this report's rosy assessment, Westminster is one of only seven councils turning in a 4 star performance.

That's disgraceful, because as we blogged on the last CPA report, a council's value for money score is actually self-assessed. And for most authorities, the Commission's Self-Assessment Pro-Forma made it even easier for councils to big themselves up this time round, requiring only an update on changes from 2005.

So the assessments are hardly worth the paper they're written on, and only one council in the entire country is now assessed as not meeting minimum standards- the forever benighted Stoke on Trent*. To fail a self-assessment test really is the pits, and my strong advice to residents is flee to the hills.

Obviously local authority financial accounts should be audited to make sure nobody's got their fingers in the till. Nobody disputes that.

But the Audit Commission now costs us £200m pa, and fundamentally, it's another bureaucratic instrument of central government control over local authorities. Except of course, with these quality ratings- just like with the corresponding star system for rating hospitals- players are clearly learning to game the system. And a government that has been in power for a decade is only too ready to connive in rtaings that apparently show year-on-year improvement.

Does anyone really believe 80% of local authorities are now performing "well" or "strongly"? Talk sense will you?

*Footnote- Tyler knows someone who grew up in Stoke. The story is that despite being a major industrial centre, it escaped bombing by the Lufwaffe during the War because when the pilots looked down, it was such a wreck they thought they must have already bombed it. A shame.

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