Reforming Britain’s Inspectorates
By David Bell
Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.
In 2003 An Office of Public Services Reform study examined 13 inspectorates and found that their cost had increased by more then 100% in five years – from ?M in 1997 to ?M in 2002. No wonder the question of reforming inspection is very much in the air. The fact that, for the first time so far as I am aware, a Cabinet Committee has been established to oversee inspection across government is itself an indicator of the new priority being given to the issue.
Other recent initiatives have made it clear that ‘something must be done’. Last year, Sir Peter Gershon’s review of government efficiency said: Focused inspection and regulation are crucial to driving up performance in public services. It is important to ensure, however, that the costs of those activities … are proportional to their added value.
Indeed, many inspectorate and regulators are on the Conservative Party’s ‘kill or keep’ list, published on 17 January 2005.
The present school inspection arrangements were set up in the early 1990s to inform parents’ choice of schools for their children; increasingly, the role of inspection in both education and childcare is essential to the improvement of provision.
The main purposes of inspection can be different in different sectors of the economy. They have shifted over time in a way that is relevant when we look to the future and reform. But they include the following:
- Ensuring minimum standards in areas where the state feels it has a duty to do so, such as Ofted’s regulatory work in the childcare sector.
- Making available performance information to consumers so that they can exercise informed choice.
- Providing information to public service managers to help them to improve performance and holding them to account for the expenditure of public money.
So these are the reasons why successive governments have believed it right for taxpayers to foot a substantial bill for inspections. What is it that needs reform?
I suggest that, packed into the notion of ‘reform of inspection’, there are four closely linked issues: cost; bureaucratic burden; the effectiveness of the inspection process and the impact of inspection.
First, the cost of inspection. It is a legitimate aim of government, and should be of every inspectorate, to reduce the sheer cost of inspection to the minimum compatible with effective discharge of its responsibilities.
Second, and closely linked to cost. There is the bureaucratic burden of inspection. If the provider –whether schools, hospitals or prisons – are preparing for (or, worse, fighting off) inspections, they are not concentrating on their main business. Some public bodies – having been the chief executive of a local authority, I speak from experience – are inspected by multiple inspectorates, in a way that all too often seems inadequately co-ordinated. Different people, looking at much the same things, but reporting on them against different frameworks and in different ways to different timescales.
There has undoubtedly been progress in this respect: the new children’s services inspections, co-ordinated by Ofsted but involving several other inspectorates, are a case in point. The Audit Commission is moving to a process of ‘strategic regulation’ with a greater emphasis on proportionality. Indeed, all inspectorates in local government are co-ordinating their work so that there are less separate and unconnected visits to councils. But I would not pretend that there is not room for going a lot further.
The question whether there are currently too many inspectorates is, of course, a matter for Minister and Parliament. But I believe that there is very considerable scope for rationalization. We owe it to the professionals in the services we inspect to come up with unified and focused ‘one-stop shop’ approaches to inspection wherever possible. Doing that through co-ordination between a multiplicity of inspectorates is not impossible and may always to some extent be necessary: but it undoubtedly imposes its own costs, both on the inspectorates and on those inspected.
Third, there is the effectiveness of the inspection process. How appropriate is the relevant inspection framework? Is any pre-inspection material required readily available, and kept to a minimum? Are the inspectors competent and credible? I know that inspectorates continually review these matters, In my role as Chair of the Local Services Inspectorate Forum, for England, I see the efforts which my colleagues in inspectorates across many policy areas are making to change the way they do business. But it is sometimes hard for inspectorates themselves to do so: an outside perspective can help provide a common-sense focus on what really does make a difference. An outside perspective can help provide a common-sense focus on what really does make a difference.
Finally, there is the question of the impact of inspection. If, as I firmly believe, a main justification for inspection of modern public services is to help bring about improvement, can we demonstrate that inspection does actually do so? I fear that, for too long, this question has not been high on the agenda of most inspectorates. Inspectorates do not have a God given right to exist, and unless we can demonstrate that we are helping to bring about change, it will not be surprising if a future government sees inspection on its present scale as an unnecessary luxury. Ofsted published a major evaluation of its impact last year. The understandable question I was asked on doing so was, why has it taken you so long?
I believe that inspection makes a huge difference. If the inspection regime is inappropriate, it can even make a negative difference. But it can equally set high standards for expectations and accountability in the public services, and provide an expert outside perspective which helps front-line professionals to raise their sights.
‘This fine talk is all very well, Mr Bell: but in what you are doing in Ofsted, are you putting your money where your mouth is?’ To that very reasonable question, the answer is yes; though always bearing in mind that with a remit set in primary legislation, there are some things that I cannot change directly.
Like, I guess, all my colleagues in other inspectorates, I am required to reduce Ofsted’s budget substantially: by 20% over the next three years. We are achieving that principally by looking hard at every one of our inspection and regulatory regimes. The best-known example of this is the inspection of schools. Despite the fact that the Government is asking Ofsted to inspect schools every three years (twice as frequently as we currently do), we shall be reducing the annual cost. We are doing this by moving from the present, tightly defined and all-encompassing inspection of everything a school does, to shorter, much more focused inspections, involving many fewer inspector days. The new inspections will start from the school’s own self-evaluation, and focus on the key issues which that, and other pre-inspection data, produce. The result will be an inspection process which links more clearly with what the school is doing to improve itself. It will also be less disruptive. Because there will be very much less notice of an inspection—a few days at most, compared with a couple of months at present—the school simply will not be able to divert effort into ‘preparing for Ofsted’.
We have been piloting this approach: we know that it works, that it produces reports which parents find more useful, and that it does indeed cost a lot less. In the course of devising the new inspections, we are developing a completely different working relationship with the private inspection contractors who are our partners in this process. And we are working hard with them to build in unambiguous indicators of the impact inspection is having.
These changes, I would argue, deliver every one of the dimensions of reform I have mentioned in this article. Reform of inspectorates? Given the will, it can be done!
David Bell is Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools, Ofsted, London
References Gershon, P. (2004),
Releasing Resourcesfor the Frontline: Independent Review of Public Sector Efficiency (HM Treasury, London).
Inspecting for Improvement: Developing a Customer-Focused Approach (Cabinet Office, London).