Features: January 18th, 2008

By Andy Bagley

Changes to the Assessment Framework from April 2008 could leave local authorities unprepared and ill equipped to deliver against performance targets. Fewer targets do not mean less performance measurement, it means focusing measurement on the things that matter. The author describes how local authorities could run the risk of failing to achieve key government targets if they do not have the right working methods and measures in place to deliver performance success. The reduction in Whitehall performance indicators will mean more freedoms for local authorities, but it also means revolutionising how performance is monitored.

The new performance framework gives councils major new freedoms to direct their focus and resources at issues local people care about. These include tackling anti-social behaviour, cracking down on gun culture, stepping up work to improve local education standards, fighting obesity and tackling climate change. Although these new performance indicators should be welcomed by local authorities, they do pose a significant set of challenges in ensuring that local authorities adequately manage the way they work with partner organisations such as the police, health services and community groups.

The government has slashed the number of indicators from around 1200 to just 17 statutory education targets plus 35 to be selected from a ‘basket’ of 198 others, to reflect local priorities. These priorities will be agreed between government and councils through new Local Area Agreements.

When unveiling the new framework Communities Secretary Hazel Blears said:
“We are giving local government the space it needs to thrive – they must now make the most of this once in a generation opportunity and deliver on local peoples priorities and take the tough decisions to make a positive difference”.

The Audit Commission has published advice and guidance on how to manage the transition from the previous Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) of local government to the new area-based performance framework. It advises that to ensure a smooth transition, local authorities should be proactive in implementing change at the earliest opportunity and where appropriate seek specialist advice to ensure that all areas of assessment are delivered.

Key elements of the new performance framework include:

* Strengthening accountability to citizens and communities by requiring that authorities, where appropriate, must secure the participation of citizens in their activities.

* Providing timely information and better opportunities to hold delivery partners to account.

* Developing a small set of national indicators measuring citizens’ perspectives.

* Ensuring inspectorates have a strong focus on citizen experiences as well as on outcomes and encouraging improvement.

* Ensuring transparent reporting to citizens and streamlined reporting to Government, through statutory guidance.

* Promoting the use of real time information in local performance management and reporting statistical and financial information to government.

From TEAL Consulting’s experience of working in the public sector with local authorities the lessons are clear – local authorities need to shift their focus from ‘number-crunching’ to real performance management that identifies the critical factors needed to achieve success and actively measure and manage these factors. The new framework provides councils with a great opportunity but they must not fall into the complacency trap.

We advise that to meet the new targets, local authorities need to drill down below the ‘headline’ targets and ensure that they fully understand the new ways of working and managing performance that will be needed to achieve these objectives. This will go beyond their own direct operations to encompass partnership working with both the public and private sector as future performance will be judged on area achievements through Local Strategic Partnerships.

Some authorities have overhauled the way they manage performance with the new targets in mind. Others however have been slower to realise the impact of the changes.

To help Local authorities meet the new criteria, TEAL Consulting has prepared a list of top tips that can be followed to maximise the new opportunity and avoid complacency:

1. Performance targets must be a true reflection of the outcomes that matter to people in each local area
2. A shared understanding of targets: knowing what the key local issues are and how these relate to the Local Area Agreement framework
3. Fewer targets do not mean less performance measurement; it means focusing measurement on the things that matter, and how you achieve them.
4. ‘Enabling factors’ may include ‘soft’ issues such as effective leadership, partnership management, community engagement and organisational culture – not easy to measure, critical to success.
5. Think hard about how you measure these internal aspects of performance, don’t just jump for the first measurement method that presents itself.

For further information on the new performance framework, visit the Department of Communities and Local Government website http://www.communities.gov.uk/localgovernment , or contact TEAL Consulting at www.tealconsulting.co.uk

*Andy Bagley is Director of TEAL Consulting an independent company that specialises in providing advice and consultancy services to local authorities, housing organisations and central government.