Donna Hall: Let’s bring back the Audit Commission

By Donna Hall | 28 March 2018
  • Donna Hall

Do you remember the Audit Commission? Do you miss it? Is there a need to re-invent it or something more agile as its successor? Maybe we need something that resembles the Audit Commission to provide a supportive helicopter view of each locality and to help with our collective transformation and modernisation, while keeping a weather eye on those who are struggling so we can help them sooner?

Maybe we could do with one national body which supports whole-place transformation, rather than a sector-by- sector approach like we have now in the shape of Local Government Association Peer Reviews, Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission, National Audit Office, etc?

While you may not have agreed with the then communities secretary Eric Pickles at the time, you had to admire the decisive way he abolished the Commission.

One minute it was a well-respected, sometimes feared national institution, the next minute it was gone in a very dramatic puff of blue smoke.

You may argue that we have the LGA Peer Review process in place nationally to provide a holding to account of local government.

However, many large councils who are reportedly in dire straits have never had a Peer Review and nobody can make them do it.

Timing of early intervention and prevention is critical. Last week I read Northamptonshire CC’s latest LGA Corporate Peer Review out of interest. It was carried out in September last year. The recommendations were all spot-on, but it was delivered too late for Northamptonshire to act.

A starkly forboding prediction in the report stated: ‘Time is running out for Northamptonshire’. It was great that this was delivered in such an upfront way, but too late to make the authority face up to the tough decisions it has subsequently been criticised for failing to take over the years.

Another useful Audit Commission role was overseeing the national Comprehen-sive Performance Assessment (CPA) process in each locality.

Although the CPA process was much maligned by some colleagues at the time, I thought it was a useful whole-system approach which is not in place systematically across the UK now.

Data could be compared across every council in the land through their relative performance overviews. This helped drive up aspirations and provide rich learning for everyone.

With many chief executives taking on the accountable officer role within our local clinical commissioning group as well as being head of paid service for the local authority, the importance of whole-place performance and cultural assessment is more important than ever.

It is not just about how your delayed transfers of care figures in your local hospital are looking this week in comparison with your neighbours.

We need something which rigorously challenges us and compares us collectively as providers of integrated, high quality, easy-to-access services, supportive employers in the locality, as civic leaders, community champions and authentic leaders of place.

The model for a refreshed, enabling and slimmed-down Audit Commission could be based on the type of transformed, agile council we have worked hard to build in Wigan over the last six years.

In 2011, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said Wigan was the third worst austerity-affected UK council.

At that point we knew we could not continue to operate in a paternalistic hierarchical clunky way. We re-invented ourselves through The Wigan Deal – a new psychological contract between citizen and state.

Our corporate peer review described the approach as ‘the best UK example of a genuine shift in the relationship between citizen and state’.

The results have been dramatic and impressive. We have reduced our budget by over 50%, managed to freeze council tax for the last five years – a key part of the deal.

Resident satisfaction with the council has increased by 59% and we are the best council to work for in the UK according to our annual staff survey.

We have not closed a single library or community centre. Instead, we have worked hard, using risk stratification algorithms to predict, target and reduce demand by working differently with our communities and spending £10m in community investment programmes in our large and complex borough.

At the same time, by using the deal to manage demand and adopting the principles of asset-based, place-based working and anthropology in our communities, we have seen massive leaps in the performance of ours and our NHS partners’ integrated services.

A national transformative, creative, flexible and supportive body which has different conversations with localities in the same way we have with our communities in Wigan could help us all get through the remaining years of austerity.

It would put people and places at the centre of the process, rather than individual siloed inspection regimes which measure and monitor different outputs and drive us all mad. Just a thought.

Donna Hall is chief executive of Wigan MBC

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