Performing for whom?

Morley, from the Local Government Information Unit, asks whether Best Value has
made councils accountable to local people and warns of increasing government

tensions exist in Best Value. One crucial example is the tension between
accountability to local people and the requirement to meet national targets.
And the recent local government white paper Strong Local Leadership, Quality
Public Services
,1 shows worrying signs that the original purpose
of Best Value – local accountability – may be shifting significantly towards accountability
to central government.

The first
of the 12 principles of Best Value is: “The duty of Best Value is one that
local authorities owe to local people, both as taxpayers and the customers of
local authority services.” This was widely welcomed by local government. The
precursor to Best Value, compulsory competitive tendering, though it did not
strictly apply to social services, was the embodiment of a contract culture
that had pervaded local government and was wholly discredited.

Of course,
central government did not relinquish all of its control over local
authorities. The principles retained the government’s right, as it saw it, to
continue to set national standards. There was a significant role for external
auditors and inspectors, and the government made no bones about its
determination to intervene if it saw services failing. But the language was
positive. The minister at the then Department of the Environment, Transport and
the Regions, Hilary Armstrong MP, spoke about Best Value not just being about
economy and efficiency: the effectiveness and quality of services was just as
important. It was to be a permissive framework, emphasising local choice and

Two years
down the line, what has its effect on social services been? Feedback is mixed
and it depends on whom you talk to. At a recent seminar on social services and
Best Value, a number of practitioners said that the real benefit of the process
had been to review provision from the perspective of service users. A typical
comment was: “In the past there was a danger of only reviewing when something
went wrong. Now Best Value encourages the systematic reviewing of services.”

Others were
less sure of the benefits of Best Value. “It’s compulsory competitive tendering
by the back door” and “it’s process-driven and managerial” characterise some of
the more sceptical responses.

These are
all insider views. What do service users, the original focus of the Best Value
process, think? Two years since Best Value started is not very long to gather
any firm conclusions. But recently published performance indicator data contain
some very good news, which appears to indicate positive public attitudes.

per cent of the public are satisfied with the overall service provided by their
local authority. A much higher percentage answered “Yes” when asked whether
they received help quickly once a decision was made to provide social services.
This is a complex question, of course. People may have received help quickly,
but was it the right help? Were they satisfied with the help they were given?
What was the quality of the provision? The data does not answer these more
searching questions.

achievement of positive public feedback has however come at a time of continued
pressure on social services budgets and problems with recruitment and
retention. Figures from the Employers’ Organisation for Local Government2
have shown an overall fall in the numbers employed in social services
departments in England, although there was an increase in Wales. The Welsh
figures disguise the true picture, which is one of an increase in central and
support staff off-setting a substantial decrease in the numbers employed in
direct service provision, in domiciliary and residential care in particular.
Nor is this a problem that can be solved by the use of the private and
independent sectors. Large numbers of private and independent homes are
experiencing major difficulty in recruiting nurses and care staff.

government minister Nick Raynsford has acknowledged that data show that local
authorities have embraced the Best Value framework and are working hard to
improve key services.3 But the fact remains that the tensions
persist. Those tensions are increasing through a shift in Best Value’s stated
aims, with the process now being presented more as a means of achieving
accountability of local government to central government than about
accountability to local people. One thing is certain, with a full-scale review
of Best Value under way, the die appears to have already been cast. So how can
we expect Best Value to develop from here?

Scotland and Northern Ireland have always been subject to different
interpretations and application of Best Value and there are separate, and
commendable, developments going on there. In England, there is the local
government white paper,  heralded as a
new vision for the beginning of the 21st century. Its stated aim was to set out
proposals for better performance management frameworks, giving councils greater
freedoms, flexibilities, incentives and capacity and boosting their community
leadership role.

Central to
the new performance assessment framework is the categorisation of councils as
“high performing”, “striving”, “coasting” or “poor performing”. The Local
Government Information Unit (LGIU) has been critical of the practical
implications of this framework since the white paper was published last
December. The LGIU agrees with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance
Accountants that the danger in this is of encouraging “unhelpfully simplistic
views of the complex, multi-service organisations that councils are”. In our
view, the terminology used in the classification is certainly patronising and
may in many cases also be defamatory. People in social services will understand
why labelling like this is not helpful and why it has to be changed. To cite
just one example, a council labelled as coasting, let alone poor performing,
will have enormous problems recruiting and retaining staff. It is difficult
enough to recruit, retain and motivate staff already without having a “failing”
tag to contend with. Many fear that the label will be self-perpetuating.

categorisation is being entrusted to the Audit Commission and there is no
mechanism proposed for councils to appeal against their classification although
some will inevitably be contentious. Very few, if any, councils will be unable
to show evidence of some good practice, even excellence, in some service areas
and the classification needs to take account of this.

It is more
difficult to see how the performance framework for the council as a whole will
work for social services. Assessments by the Audit Commission will be
“complemented” by the new social services performance rating. It is not clear,
however, whether this is part of bringing together the service-based
inspections and assessments (but if so, why is it mentioned separately?) or if
it is supposed somehow to sit alongside them. The cynical may suggest that this
is the Department of Health refusing to cede control to the Department of
Transport, Local Government and the Regions. It does seem to promote
centralised standards over local choice and to isolate social care at a time
when, at local level at least, some progress was being made in joining it up
strategically. In any event it has interposed another tension into Best Value.

None of
this seems to have been felt necessary in Wales where the new programme for
improvement shows a similar commitment to improving services but on the basis
of a much more supportive relationship between the Welsh assembly, the
inspectorates and local government.

In England
a better balance is needed between delivery on national priorities and councils
meeting their obligations to local communities. Recent improvements
notwithstanding, social services departments, like other local authority
services, would have benefited from the first principles of Best Value being
reaffirmed. The last thing they needed was a heightening of the tension between
national and local priorities and a further dose of managerialism. CC

Morley is a policy officer at the Local Government Information Unit


1 Department for Transport, Local
Government and the Regions, Strong Local Leadership, Quality Public Services,
DTLR, December 2001

2 Employers’ Organisation for Local
Government, 12th Annual Social Services Survey, EO, 2000

3 DTLR, Best Value Performance
, 2001


Government Information Unit, Best Value and Social Care, LGIU, is
available from 020 7554 2800

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