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

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

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

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

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

“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

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

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

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

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.

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

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.