Signs of pent-up resentment as performance ‘fixers’ lie in wait

If the AA offers to tow your car away for major repairs when you
have spent all weekend under the bonnet and believe it is running
well, you are likely to feel unhappy that your judgement and skills
are being questioned.

For the local authorities set to be labelled the poorest performers
at the end of the year, this could become a familiar analogy as the
government starts sending in the “repair men” before they have even
been summoned and when, locally at least, they may not be
considered necessary.

Such action is threatened in the latest missive from the Office of
the Deputy Prime Minister as the final point on a sliding scale of
support and intervention.

The measures are intended to deal with councils’ weaknesses
identified in the new comprehensive performance assessment, the
outcomes of which will be announced in December.

The consultation paper, ‘Tackling Poor Performance in Local
Government’1, states: “In all cases the government would
prefer to work with councils on a co-operative and constructive

“But speed is of the essence, and authorities that are unwilling to
recognise the urgency of the situation, or are unwilling to prepare
or unable to execute a recovery plan, can expect the government to
consider using its [intervention] powers.”

Although the government claims that intervention measures will be
used only in “exceptional cases”, there are fears among local
government officers and members that any move towards imposed
solutions will create resentment and further hinder the improvement

The Local Government Association’s spokesperson on CPA, Matthew
Warburton, says that imposing a solution on a council from above
will probably result in council officers and members walking away
from the situation and “disengaging”. An imposed interim management
team will, he says, be forced to waste time trying to win support
from remaining managers before it can even begin trying to
implement change.

There are also concerns that intervention powers may end up being
used at the wrong time in the wrong place. Warburton warns that, as
a result of the way the performance judgements are to be reached,
many councils that are labelled “poor” will not require
intervention, while others that need extra help may be designated

“An authority that has severe corporate weaknesses may nonetheless
escape being designated ‘poor’ on the strength of a couple of good
services,” Warburton says. “Therefore, a CPA rating may delay
fixing a problem.”

Councils will be categorised according to performance information
across several areas and an assessment of their corporate
capability. But there are fears that the method of calculating the
final judgements will result in too many councils placed in the
“poor” category with too few designated “excellent”.

This is partly because the formula dictates that a bad performance
in one service, such as a zero-star rating in social services,
automatically prevents a council obtaining an overall rating of
anything other than “poor” or “weak”. Similarly, a council with
good improvement prospects but a poor current performance will
always be lumped in the “poor” category with those that are poor
with no prospects.

The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives has doubts about
the CPA methodology, and particularly its reliability as the basis
for intervention decisions. “The Audit Commission is coming up with
a model that is based on different and subjective methodologies and
trying to make out it is a statistically valid model,” a
spokesperson says.

She predicts that the outcome will be misleading performance
judgements and questions the government’s decision to put so much
faith in a much-criticised process.

The society also highlights the lack of evidence to support the
notion that central government intervention in local government
affairs necessarily leads to improvement.

“At a micro level, such as in one school, it might work,” the
spokesperson says. “But we have little evidence that it works at
the macro level.”

Dennis Reed, director of the Local Government Information Unit,
agrees that the CPA process is likely to be too pessimistic and may
struggle to reveal councils’ true problems.

“Solutions have to relate to real problems, and I’m not sure real
problems are going to be identified the way CPA is being
implemented,” he says. “Rather than trying to stick some crude
classification on a council, it is far better to recognise the good
and bad bits.

“When the assessments come out in December, there are going to be
some councils described as poorly performing which are, in fact,
beacon councils in some services. That just makes government policy
look ludicrous.”

Reed also points out the negative impact of being labelled as
“poor” on a council’s ability to recruit and retain staff,
particularly when all a council’s services will be tarred with the
same brush.

Instead, struggling local authorities should be helped through peer
support rather than penalties. Reed dismisses the idea mooted in
the document from the deputy prime minister that a council’s
difficulties could be resolved by the arrival of what he calls a
“private sector messiah”, or an elected mayor.

This notion of peer support lies at the heart of the work carried
out by the Improvement and Development Agency.

The agency will be on call to help councils at all levels after the
CPA results are known, but will play a particular role in the
poorest performing councils in terms of encouraging willingness to
change among members and officers and creating ownership.

The agency’s CPA manager, Andy O’Brien, says: “We are going to try
to strengthen the links between the corporate centre and the
services. The client must be ready for improvement, so we will
strengthen senior managers and members.”

O’Brien believes the agency also has a role in stemming the
development of a blame culture, where the immediate reaction to a
bad CPA rating is to sack the council’s chief executive and senior

With three months remaining until the first set of CPA ratings for
top-tier councils are published, the Audit Commission rejects
allegations about the reliability of the CPA methodology. The
commission also denies there will be an over-concentration of
councils in the “poor” category, with one spokesperson insisting
that there will be no more than 20 councils in the bottom category
and a similar number at the top.

For now, we will have to take his word for it. But, come December,
the performance ratings will speak for themselves and, as the
interventions begin, the debate about the value of CPA will surely
rumble on.

l Tackling Poor Performance in Local Government from

Roads to recovery for poor performers

– All poorly performing councils to draw up a recovery plan that
identifies the key actions, milestones and support costs necessary
to tackle the weaknesses identified in the CPA.

– The government and the council to agree on the recovery plan and
the external assessment of the council’s ability to deliver

– For councils deemed capable, partnership or improvement boards,
including experts in areas of weakness identified in the CPA, to be
appointed jointly by the government and the council to support

– For councils deemed incapable, the deputy prime minister’s office
or the council to source significant external support from the
public, private or voluntary sector. The Improvement and
Development Agency could also be used.

– Councils deemed incapable of implementing the recovery plan, even
with significant external support, to be asked by the government to
put in place interim management teams. This process could also be
initiated by the councils.

– At any stage, the government to consider using its statutory
powers of intervention if a council is judged unable to instigate
improvements quickly.

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