Target practice

    Public service agreements are giving local authorities greater
    freedom to tackle local problems – and there’s a cash incentive for
    those achieving preordained targets. Lauren Revans reports.

    Electoral turn-out may have been low in the general and local
    elections earlier this month, but it was still twice as high as the
    average turn-out for those local elections which do not coincide
    with a national polling day.

    To tackle the problem of such high numbers of vote-shy citizens,
    Milton Keynes, Blackburn with Darwen and Sunderland councils have
    all chosen to include a target on increasing electoral turnout in
    their public service agreements (PSAs), finalised with central
    government between February and May this year.1

    The three are part of a 20-strong group of local authorities
    that have signed up to pilot local PSAs before the scheme is rolled
    out to other county, unitary, metropolitan and London authorities
    from April 2002.

    Local PSAs involve a local authority committing itself to
    achieving at least 12 tough targets agreed by local people,
    partners, and central government. In return, government gives the
    authority extra freedom locally to decide how best to deliver its
    outcomes, and offers up to 2.5 per cent of the authority’s net
    budget requirement as a reward for achieving its targets after
    three years.

    The initiative is a result of some like-minded thinking by the
    Local Government Association and the Treasury, and the publication
    in 1999 of the LGA’s policy document The Local Challenge.
    This recommended allowing local authorities and their partners to
    develop locally-designed measures to deliver national targets or
    standards rather than being “confined by rigid national
    programmes”.2

    As LGA local PSA policy officer Tony Blake explains: “Our
    thinking was that local authorities will achieve better results if
    they are given freedom to achieve outcomes. The Treasury agreed but
    wanted to incentivise this to provide a bit more security.”

    Many of the 20 local PSA pilots have drawn their targets from
    their community strategies, and all cover a mix of local and
    national priorities. Participating councils were also obliged to
    include targets based on a number of national objectives for local
    government covering aspects of educational attainment, social care
    for older people or children, transport and overall
    cost-effectiveness.3

    The headline outcomes for the 20 local PSAs are, then, broadly
    similar in many respects. Recurring target choices include higher
    adoption rates and improved educational attainments of looked-after
    children; more older people helped to live at home; an increase in
    the uptake of drug treatment programmes among young people; lower
    unemployment rates; fewer young people re-convicted; and fewer
    teenage pregnancies.

    The means of achieving these targets, however, vary
    significantly – justifying the scheme’s very existence by
    highlighting the many different ways there are of approaching
    national problems with innovative local solutions when given the
    freedom to do so (see box).

    Targets are negotiated on the basis that they stretch what would
    otherwise have been achieved under a local authority’s Best Value
    performance plan. The Best Value framework and other existing
    performance indicators will also be used where possible by councils
    to minimise the amount of extra work involved.

    “Everything in our document is already being monitored in some
    shape or form, although not all of it is being reported,” says
    Middlesbrough Council’s corporate strategy officer Carol Taylor.
    “There are no new structures that we have had to put in place. We
    are just utilising the ones we have already got.”

    To help councils achieve their enhanced targets, up to £1
    million has been made available to each of the 20 PSA pilots in the
    form of “pump-priming” money. And extra credit approvals have been
    agreed with central government to allow councils to borrow
    additional funds.

    Crucially, flexibilities have also been negotiated. These will
    allow Warwickshire to streamline planning and administrative
    arrangements for looked-after children, Blackburn to switch youth
    justice board funding between young offender programmes, Derbyshire
    to simplify the rules on providing disabled facilities grants to
    people living at home, Richmond-upon-Thames to introduce more
    integration between health and social care services for older
    people, and much, much more.

    A debate has now also been opened on other restrictions imposed
    on local working practices by central government’s own rules. Up
    for discussion is a reduction of the number of statutory plans
    demanded each year from education and social services, the removal
    of barriers to old people living independently, and the delegation
    of functions from health authorities to local authorities in
    relation to nursing home provision.

    And it is precisely the opening of these new channels of
    communication between local and central government that many
    participants have cited as the biggest bonus of involvement in the
    local PSA process.

    Senior policy officer at Milton Keynes Council, Helen Clark,
    believes negotiations around the local PSA have given the council
    the opportunity to explain local circumstances to central
    government and to allow both sides to develop a degree of mutual
    understanding.

    “We now have a better idea about how they function, and they
    have a better idea about what our issues are locally,” Clark
    says.

    Acting head of strategic development at Camden council,
    Charlotte Pomery, describes the authority’s local PSA as a “route
    for initialising dialogue” with central government and an
    opportunity to give officials the “real life angle” on
    policies.

    “It has been an interesting process in terms of working closely
    with policy leaders at the department of health. There is a feeling
    that solutions can be found to problems we are experiencing,”
    Pomery adds.

    Labour promised in its manifesto to extend the local PSA scheme
    to “all upper-tier councils”, offering high performance authorities
    further financial flexibility, reformed inspections, more local
    discretion, and access to a £400 million reward
    fund.4

    Now that the country – or at least 59 per cent of it – has
    spoken, Labour is back in power and ready to fulfil its
    pre-election pledge. The impact of local PSAs and extension of
    public service targets from central to local government should not
    be under-estimated.

    1 Department of the Environment, Transport
    and the Regions, Local PSA summaries, DETR, 2001
    www.local-regions.detr.gov.uk/propilot/index.htm

    2 The Local Government Association, The
    Local Challenge
    , LGA, 1999

    3 Spending Review 2000: New Public
    Spending Plans
    , Treasury, 2000

    4 Labour Party Manifesto, 2001

    Local PSA targets

    Blackburn with Darwen
    Target: Increase the number of adoptions of looked-after
    children by at least 66 per cent

    Solution: Fast-track care by eliminating the grounds on which a
    barrister representing a child’s birth parents could question an
    initial assessment of a child and appeal for a second. This could
    cut court cases from at least a year to six months and will be
    achieved by using senior level child care social workers backed by
    a multi-disciplinary team of experts to carry out assessments.

    Assistant director for children and families Stephen Sloss
    explains: “We want to find a way to ensure that teams develop plans
    for children that become regarded locally as second to none and
    therefore less likely to be questioned within the appropriate
    scrutiny.”

    Warwickshire
    Target: Fewer admissions to, and delayed discharges from,
    hospital for older people and more people receiving services in the
    community

    Solution: Use pump-priming funds to appoint three intermediate
    care managers to manage and co-ordinate access to the range of
    intermediate care services on behalf of the primary care groups and
    the social services department, and develop and implement joint
    commissioning and purchasing strategies.

    PSA lead officer Andy Burns says: “Both sides agree there are
    benefits for all of us in doing this and if that fits in with
    shifting money around that’s fine.”

    Milton Keynes
    Target: Enable 90 people with severe learning
    difficulties into a job of their choice

    Solution: Offer people with learning difficulties who would be
    “deemed incapable of work as far as the New Deal for the Disabled
    is concerned” the chance to find employment where that has been
    identified as a need during their assessment.

    Use pump-priming funds to recruit a team of 10 to work with
    individuals with learning difficulties, arrange supported work
    experience placements, find appropriate places of employment, help
    individuals apply for jobs, assist them in the workplace, and sort
    out their benefit situation once they are employed.

    Derbyshire
    Target: Improving care for older people and reducing
    hospital admissions

    Solution: Work with district council and local primary care
    group to broaden annual health checks for the over-75s to include
    social services and housing issues too, probably by providing extra
    training for the nurses who carry out checks already and by
    carrying out the checks in the individuals’ homes.

    “If we do that, we can intervene with some preventive services
    that will reduce their need for residential care and nursing care
    subsequently,” predicts head of planning for adult services James
    Mathews.

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