The time for answers

Last week, The Times used Oflog data to produce league tables, realising local government’s fears over the new watchdog. Local Government Association chair Shaun Davies details his concerns.

In January, then-Chair of Oflog Lord Morse wrote in The MJ that council concerns that the Office for Local Govermment (Oflog) ‘will cast unfair judgements on the basis of data without context' were ‘sensible and understandable' and that it was working hard to ‘allay them'.

It is no surprise then the recent Times article – which used Oflog data to create league tables of the ‘best and worst' performing councils – has caused anger and frustration across the local government sector. The article was also widely shared by government ministers, including communities secretary Michael Gove.

The methodology to rank councils was fundamentally flawed. For example, awarding average scores to councils which don't deliver a particular service automatically rates them higher than half of the councils that do deliver those services.

The analysis also completely failed to consider individual policy decisions taken by councils – such as deriving energy from waste rather than recycling – while we know that variation in spending on certain services is often driven by factors outside the control of councils, such as deprivation and demographics.

The use of crude rankings on the performance of a council simply based on a data comparison with others of the same type or in close proximity is therefore impossible without also considering the characteristics and context of the area and its population.

While Oflog didn't produce the league table themselves, it has not acted to allay concerns or to point out the inaccuracies of this analysis.

This lack of action has called into question its ability to ‘inform', one of Oflog's strategic objectives; and has severely damaged sector trust in its ability to ‘warn' and ‘support', its other two objectives. It has only fuelled concerns among councils about the role of Oflog, which is underpinned by the lack of progress made in establishing Oflog as an independent body.

The fact that this happened during the pre-election period, which restricted the ability for councils to adequately respond, has made the situation even worse.

As a result, I have written to Gove, to express these concerns, alongside the LGA's senior vice chairman Cllr Kevin Bentley and vice chairs Cllr Nesil Caliskan, Cllr Joe Harris and Cllr Marianne Overton. We have set out our concerns about what this has demonstrated to councils about the role of Oflog.

Councils are committed to transparency and public scrutiny of their performance and the LGA works hard to support councils to be as efficient and effective as possible, share best practice and help drive up performance. Our strengthened Corporate Peer Challenge process is now even more robust and consistent to meet the needs of the sector.

The LGA and councils have also engaged extensively with Oflog to understand its purpose and seek to ensure our work is complementary and not duplicative. We have regularly been given assurances that Oflog's intention was to flag possible issues and allow the public to ask informed questions of their local authority.

But we have consistently flagged the risk that league tables or unhelpful comparisons could be drawn from Oflog data, which does not always include the most recent information.

We warned that current Oflog data and metrics do not provide the public with an accurate picture of the state of local government: for example, the indicator used by Oflog on debt uses core spending power as a measure of the funding that the Government makes available for service delivery, but it excludes several important elements that may be contributing to the servicing of debt, such as service income, housing rents and investment income.

This has the effect, among other things, of making councils with housing revenue accounts ‘perform' worse on this metric since their debt for housing is included, but not their means of servicing it

Councils deliver more than 800 services but Oflog's Local Authority Data Explorer does not cover this breadth so the league tables cannot accurately describe local authority activity.

Our questions of Oflog and the Department are now clear. What will it do to explain the limits of the data it publishes and how this should be used responsibly? How can it now rebuild the trust and confidence of the sector?

The LGA has requested a meeting with the Secretary of State as a matter of urgency to seek answers to these questions.

Shaun Davies is chair of the Local Government Association

X – @LGAcomms


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