Headlines: September 19th, 2001

‘Could do better’ is the verdict on councils’ ability to subject their services to the ‘best value’ test.Best value is the market-testing concept that challenges local authorities to provide their services at a cost and quality that their residents demand, and a new report suggests two-thirds of councils are either coasting or performing poorly.

The Audit Commission says that in some cases this is because they lack the capacity or systems to improve themselves. More often, and more worryingly, it is because they lack the will to ask challenging questions or the vision to tackle difficult choices.

The annual report into the operation of best value comes at a time when the Government is beginning to concentrate on delivery of improved services, and is showing itself increasingly willing to demand improvement (See Hackney below.)

The Audit Commission goes on to praise best value as a tool, saying that it has led to improvement in three-quarters of the 20 performance indicators where comparison is available with past evidence. Best value inspections by the Audit Commission have also found forty per cent of services to be good or excellent, and that half are likely to improve in the future. Most councils are now more open about their performance and many are using best value to ask challenging questions of themselves.

The Audit Commission has called for changes to the inspection regime to enable it to differentiate between the needs of different councils, and on its part has also promised to better integrate audit and inspection, with the piloting of single client managers to co-ordinate local work. It says ‘one-size-fits-all’ inspection is not the most effective means to support improvements in local services.