The Audit Commission published its final CPA (comprehensive performance assessment) report on English local government this week. After 7 years of the CPA regime, it is being replaced by the new CAA (comprehensive area assessments) which brings in local public services that are not controlled by local government to provide an overall area view of services and their performance.
CPA is widely regarded as having been successful – even by some local governments who were assessed badly (see “Looking back – moving forward: accounts of council improvement by leading politicians” – IDEA/LGA). So why is it being abandoned? (For the AC’s own assessment of CPA see Final Score)
CAA shifts the focus from organisational assessments of local government (LG) to outcomes-based assessments of partnerships and areas. What citizens are interested in, so the argument goes, is not process but delivery, not organisations but outcomes. And the prime method of delivery is, these days, not hierarchical local government but networked partnerships of various public, voluntary and private organisations.
The second line of argument is that the public will respond to CAA by holding all public services, including LG, to account.
The third is that the CPA has worked and is no longer needed – LG has moved away from being a ‘basket case’ and improved immensely. Now what is needed is a less top-down, more ‘self-regulating’ regime.
This all contains an element of truth – outcomes are important, not just process and organisation; partnerships have become more numerous; local areas are served by many public services outside of LG.
But it ignores the simple fact that the only locally democratically accountable local organisation in any area is LG. And moreover, in most areas what LG does is probably the key determinant of what happens and it is usually the dominant, or at least biggest, partner in most ‘partnerships’.
CAA also presupposes a heroic level of civic engagement for it to work – something that has not been apparent in English localities in decades, and that this will bypass politics. The irate local populace will somehow demand improvements from a diverse and diffuse set of local organisations and partnerships that they have not managed to do through the well-defined and easily accessible avenues of local democracy? This is, as the Americans would say, a big ask.
In the shift from CPA to CAA the focus on LG performance is rapidly being lost. Some elements will be retained, but the core high-profile, star-rated and league-tabled assessments will melt away. The simple question is why not both – why not continue with CPA (even perhaps a less full-blown version) and also add on the area, partnership and local outcomes focus of CAA? Surely this would give the benefits of both – and not risk losing everything if CAA does not work as planned.
Complex, multi-dimensional services require complex, multi-dimensional forms of assessment and accountability. The current vogue to focus exclusively on “outcomes” – also apparent in central governments’ Public Service Agreements (PSAs) – is about as daft and unbalanced as just focussing on inputs (budgets). As usual, it is a question of balance not one-sided ‘reform’.