Variety may be the spice of life, but variation may spell the further demise of local government, or at least unexplained variation.
With a forthcoming Spending Review made tighter by a combination of Brexit-induced financial uncertainty and a pre-emptive promise of a significant NHS funding uplift, the sector needs to understand and mitigate the risks associated with unexplained variation in service quality and outcomes.
Spending reviews are notorious for seizing on unexplained variation as a means of identifying the potential for funding reductions.
Why can’t the apparently least efficient improve to the level of say, the upper quartile, the thrusting young ones at the Treasury ask? And, whether it is because they don’t know the answer, given their paucity of personal experience of service delivery or don’t want to face the complicated challenge of finding savings, spending formulae are then built upon trial and error.
To avoid this, the sector needs to build a strong evidence base and compelling narrative that explains variation. This is not to deny that some variation is entirely right and proper – whether driven by very different operating contexts, differing funding levels or overt political prioritisation decisions.
The Local Government Assocation’s recent work with Newton Europe, looking at variation in children’s services, constitutes progress on this front. But it is not enough.
First, the Newton Europe analysis suffers from a lack of robust universal data upon which to build an incontrovertible analysis – something the sector could swiftly put right if it had the will to do so.
Second, it is only one service area out of many, each of which needs at least the same degree of analysis.
And third, instead of trying to explain away all poor performance, the sector needs to be more open and honest about the fact that it exists and is unacceptable.
What is clear is that if the sector does not compellingly and robustly explain variation, then this will be done by others, most likely to the sector’s detriment.
There remains time to build this narrative before the Spending Review, but not much.
Abdool Kara is executive leader for local services at the National Audit Office (NAO)