Comprehensive Performance Assessment—Help or Hindrance?
By Faith Boardman
As one of the most deprived and diverse inner-city boroughs, Lambeth has long been in desperate need of excellent public services. In late 2000, when I was appointed as their seventh chief executive in 10 years, Lambeth remained one of the worst three councils in the country after 25 years of entrenched political, financial, service delivery and management weakness.
Contemporary reports (for example from the IDeA, Audit Commission, Social Services Inspectorate, Ofsted and the District Auditor, as well as staff and residents’ surveys) showed that in late 2000
:•A disastrous cross-party attempt to devolve budgetary control had resulted in no accounts for two years; indeterminate budget holes (which later proved to be over £100 million); and repeated budget crises and cuts (which had destroyed normal financial disciplines and left some key services with totally inadequate budgets).
•At least 14 major services were officially ‘failing’ and a cause of special external concern.
•Outsourcing some major services in the mid 1990s had failed, creating extra financial pressures.
•Customer satisfaction levels and access to services and information were appalling, and there was no strategy, skills, money or capacity for improving customer service and value for money by introducing modern technology.
• The council’s political leadership was volatile in an electorally marginal borough. Local history had made some leading members antagonistic towards ‘officers’ and unclear about what behaviours were acceptable under the new Standards Board regime and about the proper borderlines between member and officer roles. All resources to support diversity and to train and develop staff had been ‘cut’ as part of large and arbitrary cross-party cuts in the mid 1990s, which had resulted in staff feeling unvalued and insecure. The combined leadership of the then opposition parties had no ethnic minority representation and only one woman. No leading members in any party had experience of running a business. As a result, the council had no clear or consistent priorities; and its view of itself and its ambitions were unrealistic and overly influenced by its past.
• The staff, community, voluntary sector, partners, media and central government deeply mistrusted the council’s history and post 1995 emphasis on unrealistic ‘PR’. Nothing effective had been done to meet the requirements of post 1997 legislation to establish partnerships to tackle wider concerns like crime and public health, and central government was reluctant to trust the council with badly-needed capital.
•An IDeA peer review in November 2000 scored the council’s ‘overall ability to deliver’ as 17% and rated it as 0 out of 5 for customer focus; and for the management of its finances, people, projects, contracts and relations with partners and the community. It found that the most basic core systems did not work, and the necessary prioritization and cultural disciplines remained fundamentally ‘not fit for purpose’.
I put together Lambeth’s first three-year Corporate Improvement Plan and monitoring systems in early 2001 using models from central government. The plan involved three overlapping stages:
• First, build focus; clear priorities, programme management and specialist change capacity at the centre (the widespread weaknesses, and senior management instability, precluded a more devolved approach).
• Second, use this capacity in a targeted way over three years to sort out the finances; to develop basic systems, workforce skills and culture change across the council; and to focus my attention and corporate support on individual services in turn until all had improved to score at least ‘satisfactory’.
•Third, abandon flashy PR in favour of building trust through substance and relationships. Build a strong partnership base (and tackle some of the most pressing wider issues like crime), while using e-government to the full to improve customer service and create genuine efficiency savings to be recycled to under-funded services.
The 2001 plan envisaged a further stage (after four to five years) in which the council would be fit to take the lead in an ambitious regeneration of the borough. Lambeth’s 2002 Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) report strongly endorsed the 2001 plan and found that the overall ability to deliver had been increased from 17% to 42% by May 2002. Clear priorities had already delivered key foundations in terms of capacity, partnerships and e-government; the first major tranche of the financial turnaround; and the removal of four services from special measures.
In May 2002, a new coalition administration was elected which was at odds with the government’s modernization and community leadership agendas. In the next nine months, 40% of all senior managers (and 70% of women assistant directors and above) left the council. But crucial (and courageous) steps were taken on the finances with the completion of the planned medium-term financial strategy.
The scale of the underlying problems and continuing concerns about stability led to the first CPA report (published in December 2002) rating Lambeth as one of 13 poor or zero-star local authorities. The borough was placed under special ODPM oversight between December 2002 and December 2004. The second and third year measures in the 2001 plan were the basis for the CPA recovery plans for 2003/04 and 2004/05. The improvement plan for 2005/06 focused on levering in £500 million for major regeneration.
When I left in 2005, the CPA rated Lambeth’s ability to deliver as 66% and as a fair or ‘2 star’ council that was ‘improving well’. All of its services rated as at least‘satisfactory’ (and a number were in the top quartile for London boroughs). Resident/staff satisfaction levels were ‘greatly improved’ and Lambeth had one of the strongest financial balance sheets in London. Furthermore the council had nationally-acknowledged strengths in areas like e-government, efficiency savings, project and programme management, crime reduction partnership working and the use of Investors in People to improve the culture and skills of managers and staff.
After 25 appalling years, the council was again fit to deliver basic services and lead the wider regeneration of the borough.
The issues for the CPA
This article examines the contribution made to Lambeth’s progress by the CPA regime, and identifies some wider lessons to be learned for the national changes currently being made to inspection regimes.
Where the CPA helped…
The CPA/ODPM key contributions to Lambeth’s improvement were:
• Helping to ensure consistency by refocusing the council’s leadership on the broader 200 1–2005 improvement programme in early 2003.
• Supporting systematic, disciplined, corporate and united leadership by the leader and the chief executive in 2003 and 2004 and providing a means of bartering agreement among most of Whitehall about the priority order for tackling services.
• Providing independent and objective feedback, challenge and eventual accreditation to Lambeth’s progress (very important given the internalized and historic focus of the culture, and the external mistrust and image).
And where it didn’t…
In Lambeth’s case the CPA was not important in terms of:
• Initiating or diagnosing improvement.
• Providing any significant additional capacity or financial support.
And it was not helpful in terms of:
• Preventing serious diversion of effort to ‘death by inspections’. All inspectorates felt compelled to inspect all ‘their’ services before agreeing to release the council from overall monitoring. It proved impossible to agree a co-ordinated visit plan or to persuade inspectorates to share facts.
• Minimizing the contradictions in the approach and ‘cultures’ of individual inspection regimes. The experience highlighted the subjectivity of inspection judgements where the same facts were interpreted by different inspectorates as a glass ‘half full’ or ‘half empty’, and the favourable findings of inspectors on the ground were often overruled by distant ‘moderators’.
• Providing effective support to changing Lambeth’s culture—as the most important but least understood requirement. The Audit Commission and external monitoring concentrated on the more measurable financial, performance and project delivery symptoms and data (where their expertise was clear). But they visibly struggled to extend their approach to the underlying cultural causes beyond counting ‘tangibles’ (like formal strategy documents, training days and out-of-date residents’ surveys). In the case of staff and middle managers, this deficit was made up for by the assistance and focus provided (between January 2001 and December 2004) by initiatives like Investors in People, programme management, staff conferences and communications and management training programmes (all of which I introduced and championed). But the CPA’s failure to require members to be trained, or to fully engage, resulted in the cultures of staff and some leading members developing at different speeds.
Lessons for inspectorates Lambeth’s experience shows:
•Given the growing complexities, and the loss of the experience provided by the old committee system, inspectorates need to emphasise member capacity more, and greater national training support to members is needed on modern service delivery, community leadership, equalities and standards. This needs to be supported by the political parties nationally, in order to make training effective.
•The equalities awareness, and the culture and approach of inspection regimes varies significantly and has a major impact on those inspected and on service development. However, there is low self-awareness of this among inspectors, and a generally weaker focus on ‘soft’ issues.
•This is reinforced by the low level of contact and co-ordination between different inspectorates, and by the silo focus of many ‘owning’Whitehall departments—which can impose a disproportionate compliance burden.
•Where inspectorates have merged (as in Children’s Services) they are visibly struggling to develop the consistent team approach needed to support new policy objectives.
•Case studies like this reinforce the case for merging inspectorates, but also underline that this will be a key opportunity which will lose much of its value unless sufficient attention is paid to establishing the culture of the new bodies.
I have delivered significant change in four ‘problem’ organizations as a public sector chief executive. That has taught me that transformational leadership is defined by results, and takes as many forms as there are situations. Achieving breakthrough in Lambeth was exceptionally difficult because of 25 years of entrenched problems; fine words; transient senior managers; and a political environment which too often had contributed to the problems. Achieving excellence is not guaranteed. But it is now possible.
I intend to draw out the lessons from all four case studies in future articles and seminars. I hope that practitioners, central and local government, the Audit Commission and political leaders will take these on board in taking forward reform and modernization. n
By Faith Boardman is a former chief executive of the London Borough of Lambeth.