Real improvement in council services demands rigorous challenge of the way things are done now, innovative thinking about potential improvements and robust assessment of options. This is the message to local councils from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in a consultation paper on Best Value and Performance Improvement. The paper puts into effect the changes from the Best Value Review published in May 2002 and draws on reports aimed at improving performance in local government, such as ‘Changing Gear’ by the Audit Commission and the Byatt Report on procurement.The guidance urges councils to avoid the pitfalls of the Best Value regime such as complying with the review methodology rather than focusing on improvements, setting narrow limits for reviews and relying too much on routine market testing. It stresses that the removal of the requirement to review all activities within a five year period now opens the way to focus reviews on priorities.
Reviews must challenge how and why a service is provided and this involves a fundamental rethink. For challenge to be effective, it should involve executive members of councils, senior managers, front-line staff, service
users and the wider community. Reviews should also bring in ‘third parties’ such as partners or alternative providers in the public, voluntary and community, social enterprise and private sectors, who can bring an external perspective and expertise lacking in the authority. They also have the potential to provide an effective independent scrutiny by questioning and challenging councils’ approach.
The choice of how to deliver services has moved on from a straight decision between in house delivery or outsourcing. Options for delivery now include internal reorganisation, service outsourcing, private finance initiatives, public sector consortia, pooled budgets, joint commissioning, joint ventures, non-profit distributing organisations, as well as partnering contracts and legal partnerships. The guidance calls for a widening of the market to create more suppliers of public services to improve the quality of management and value for money. It recognizes that councils have discretion over how services are procured, but makes it clear that there is an expectation of a mixed economy of provision across each council.