Ahead of the game

Social services are experts among council
departments on Best Value. But while the cost effectiveness
initiative has achieved improvements for service users, problems
remain with inspections and red tape. Ruth Winchester reports.

When God was handing out popularity and
charisma, it is safe to assume that local authority social services
departments were not at the front of the queue. So it makes a
pleasant change for these much-maligned departments to be leading
the rest of the world on something: Best Value.

The concept of Best Value seems easy enough:
put simply, councils must try and get the best possible service for
the smallest possible amount of money. Social services were not
directly subject to Best Value’s predecessor, compulsory
competitive tendering. But they do seem to be getting on better
than most with both the conceptual and practical elements of its
replacement – to the extent that, in many local authorities, social
services departments are leading their authorities in relation to
the regime.

For the stubbornly uninitiated, Best Value is
based upon four key principles, known handily as the four Cs. These
are compare, consult, challenge and compete. Thus, local
authorities must “compare” their services against those of other
councils and the independent sector, “challenge” themselves to ask
searching questions about whether services are really needed, show
that local people are “consulted” about services, and, lastly,
in-house services should “compete” with those offered by external
agencies, and vice versa.

These are determined by a series of reviews,
conducted by the authority itself, looking in depth at different
services and assessing them according to the four Cs. These
reviews, until recently, have been audited by the Audit
Commission’s Best Value Inspectorate.

But a critical report by the Audit
Commission1 found that too many small Best Value reviews
were being conducted, and suggested that they should be looking far
wider – across organisational boundaries. So, for example, rather
than examining care homes for older people, an authority should be
using Best Value to review services for older people, or services
promoting independence.

A chorus of criticism of Best Value’s
bureaucracy and expense prompted a Department of Transport, Local
Government and the Regions review of the way the regime was being
implemented and inspected. The publication of the local government
white paper2 just before Christmas also included a
number of welcome changes to the regime. Local authorities now have
more leeway in the timescale of their Best Value reviews, and a
more sensible time frame in which to publish their Best Value
performance plans.

The government has also created a new
evaluation framework for councils’ performance – the comprehensive
performance assessment (CPA) – which will be carried out by the
Audit Commission and other inspectorates. This “local council
league table” will ultimately divide all local authorities into one
of four categories – high performing, striving, coasting, and poor
performing. Best Value inspections, and the new star-rating system
under the Social Services Inspectorate will feed into this overall
mark or “scorecard” for the authority, which will be distributed to
local residents.

The upshot for councils’ Best Value review
programmes is that the pressure is off. Best Value reviews are no
longer being audited by the Audit Commission because it has far too
much else to contend with – being the authority responsible for
putting the CPA into practice for unitary and county councils by
the end of this calendar year.

According to Trish Haines, director of social
services for Warwickshire, and the Association of Directors of
Social Services lead on Best Value: “Best Value reviews were
getting too numerous – some authorities were running dozens of
them. And a lot of the time they weren’t terribly beneficial,
because obviously the smaller the review, the less capacity you
have to look at really radical changes.

“So they [the Audit Commission] have stopped
doing that, and are concentrating on the CPA. There are 10 pilots
initially, but all county councils, unitaries and metropolitans are
going to be done this year. That’s a hugely ambitious programme,
and there’s no way the commission is going to be able to do all
that if they are scrutinising every individual Best Value

“No-one is looking over our shoulders and
checking up that we are doing our reviews – it will be judged
later. But what worries me is that people will relax, and then get
caught out later in the day.”

But although this seems a distinct possibility
with some local authority services, right now social services are
generally ahead of the game. “Social services have seen Best Value
– providing it can be managed sensibly – as a positive thing on the
whole,” says Haines. “That’s partly because we had a lot of
experience to build on – the SSI is one of the longest established
inspectorates, so we are used to being inspected. Social services
also have a good track record of consultation with service users
and that’s paying off in Best Value. In my experience it’s not
uncommon for social services to be taking the lead on Best Value
within councils.”

This is borne out by the experience of other
local authorities. In response to a straw poll of directors of
social services, most seem to feel positive about Best Value, and
said that it was bringing about improvements for service users.
Many cited significant cost savings, more detailed understanding of
clients needs, and improvements to the way departments work with
partner agencies and independent providers.

For instance, Portsmouth social services have
managed to get the unit cost of their in-house home care service
down from around 75 per cent more than the private sector, to about
25 per cent and falling. And director Rob Hutchinson adds: “We have
demonstrated to staff that Best Value isn’t about externalisation
but improvement, and if we can improve we can retain the in house

Best Value has also reinforced many of the
things social services were striving for already. According to Tony
Hunter, director of social services for East Riding Council: “Best
Value is a broad approach social services have been applying for
years – stimulated by trying to get a quart out of a pint pot as
needs have increased more than funds available. Looking at the four
Cs, we have had to challenge every service, every budget line, to
keep the show on the road.”

Another positive outcome mentioned by many was
echoed by Haines in Warwickshire: “Because staff are involved in
doing the research for Best Value reviews, when you come to make
changes to the system staff are on board with it because they have
been involved with the process. They believe the information
because they had a hand in producing it.”

There are, of course, quite a few downsides.
These range from the difficulty of getting accurate, relevant
“compare” data, to the overly bureaucratic nature of Best Value.
But the key negative, mentioned by all respondents, was the cost
involved in terms of staff time. According to Anthony Douglas,
executive director of community services, London Borough of
Havering: “The effort is massive, occupying a lot of senior and
middle management time. There is a real conflict between time for
operational work, and time for service development. Frequently the
same staff are responsible for both.” Staff are clearly under more
pressure, often exacerbated by the need to co-operate with other
departments on their own reviews.

Financial cost is another factor. Such large
scale investigations are not cheap – and consultation costs often
add considerably. Nottinghamshire Council social services estimate
that they have spent around £400,000 directly on their Best
Value reviews and implementation, including employing additional
staff and implementing four to six reviews at any one time. Another
local authority estimates that they are spending around
£30,000 on each review.

But Anthony Douglas echoes many other’s views
when he says: “The cost is, in my experience, worth it on balance,
considering the impact of many reviews which usually have far
reaching recommendations, including savings options. I’d say they
are ‘invest-to-save’ reviews, if done properly.”

At Brighton and Hove Council, social services
director Allan Bowman highlights another key concern when he says:
“The downside is the over-inspection of Best Value reviews. It
feels like we concentrate more on passing muster than on clear
outcomes. It’s a case of process driving process, rather than

The introduction of a whole new way of doing
things has certainly had its challenges yet social services still
appear to have an enthusiasm for the concept, even if they have had
to jump through a number of ill-conceived hoops to get at it.

According to Haines: “I think what has
happened is that Best Value is a radical idea, and people have
picked up the idea and raced ahead with it, while the
administrative side has struggled to keep up. But if the
alternative is that the idea has to stand still while the admin
catches up, I think I’d rather have it this way.”

1 Audit Commission,
Changing Gear, 2001

2 DTLR, Local
Government: Strong Local Leadership
, Effective Public
Services, HMSO, 2001,

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