The recent debate around the role of the Audit Commission, brought into sharp focus by John Seddon’s call to scrap it, has rather overshadowed the more important discussion around how best to improve service delivery. Is this best achieved under central direction? Or by creating a culture locally where members and officers work together to ensure they continuously improve local services by building upwards from citizens’ needs?
First up, I would like to say that the Comprehensive Performance Assessment served a purpose by proving to central government that local government could deliver. However, my own view has always been that the targets it set were more focused on where the money was spent; rather than aligned to the services the public cares about most.
With regard to the role of the Audit Commission itself, the accountability and transparency an independent auditing body brings to local government is vital. But any World class inspection service, by definition, should work itself out of a job - or at least to an optimum minimum level. It should certainly not continually expand by virtue of ‘mission creep.’
Getting back to the real debate around systems thinking and value management, this is something that has been around for a long time. The impact of the recession and the need for efficiency has generated a real interest in redesigning services to eradicate waste, reduce steps in the supply chain and most importantly make them more user-friendly. I have come across numerous authorities that are investing heavily in this approach - and it’s not just the usual ‘conference luvvies’ fixating on the latest passing fad.
Many of those authorities whose last major structural overhaul was removing the unnecessary client / contractor splits created by CCT to achieve integrated service delivery are now assessing how to reduce the steps in the supply chain still further. Some are using commissioning as an opportunity to do this. Thankfully most have learnt the lessons of history and are not using it to build bureaucracy and waste into the system by recreating procurement functions divorced from actual delivery.
World class services are delivered by organisations that promote a culture of everyone working together for a common purpose. Now, more than ever, the scarce financial resources at local authorities’ disposal must be spent on the bit that actually matters most to the punters. This means highly visible service delivery, clearly targeted at local needs. And the Audit Commission must be a World class inspection body helping make sure they achieve that.