Headlines: April 6th, 1998

Continuous improvement is a key element of the Best Value initiative launched last year. To achieve this councils will have to set up a rolling programme to review services which last year cost each household in the UK some £1800. Council performance has been tracked for the past four years by the Audit Commission in the annual publication of Performance Indicators. The latest indicators show that continuous improvement across the board is not happening and urgent action is needed by elected members and managers to improve services.The Performance Indicators show that the worst performing councils continue to do better. Council tax benefit applications should be processed within 14 days and the poorest performers have been able to double the proportion of claims cleared within the target. It is clear that being the focus of attention is a powerful motivation.

Where there is no focus of attention, because councils are turning in an average performance in, for example, collection of council tax and rent arrears, processing benefit claims, or housing homeless families, there is little improvement. In a few services, residents are receiving a worse service than four years ago. For example, district councils are taking longer to re-let empty council homes.

The use of Performance Indicators has encouraged the successful councils to strive for excellence and stimulated the poor performers to do better and move away from the bottom of the league tables. Indicators seem to have had little effect on the majority in the middle of the tables. The test of Best Value will be how it encourages and stimulates the mid range councils to perform better.