ELECTIONS

The trouble with Oflog

Council senior officers are broadly united in their view that Oflog will not provide warning of local authority failure or improve performance. But what do five experts from the sector think about the Government’s new assurance watchdog?

The host of issues they raise includes the risks of its metrics being used as ‘league tables', the challenge of gathering enough ‘soft' intelligence on councils' performance without seeing it at first-hand, and the temptation for politicians to use Oflog as a political tool ahead of the General Election.

Abdool Kara

Preventing council failure is clearly a laudable aim. Doing so is beneficial for service users, taxpayers, and the Government of the day, saving the costs of intervention and recovery. Given this is self-evident, the questions must be whether failure is predictable and, if so, preventable.

What we might call ‘single point' failures, caused by poor decisions around commercial investments, at Woking, Thurrock or Croydon for example, or potential illegality as at Tower Hamlets and Liverpool, are easy to spot, though often too late to prevent. On the other hand, failures, whether of single service areas or of a whole council, that are the result of many poor decisions at a smaller scale, eroding local capability and capacity, are much harder to detect via quantitative measurement.

In my seven years at the Audit Commission during the heady days of Best Value and Comprehensive Performance Assessments, it was very clear the only way to spot these sorts of governance failures was through having ‘boots on the ground' – through our Corporate Assessments. Being able to experience the culture of the organisation first hand and look into the whites of members' and officers' eyes as they told you what their authority was seeking to achieve – and how – gathered data that no number of performance indicators, citizens' surveys or newspaper cuttings ever could. The places where a poor culture ate a good strategy (let alone a bad one) for breakfast were the ones most prone to poor governance, weak corporate health and service deterioration.

So, if one of the objectives of Oflog is to help local authorities avoid failure, it will have to overcome this lack of insight. The challenge will be how to gather such ‘soft' intelligence without seeing it first hand, and to avoid the glossing over of issues and distraction techniques used by those who want to play the game that way, as inevitably some will.

I do not envy Oflog the task.

Abdool Kara is executive leader for local services at the National Audit Office

X – @NAOorguk

Jessica Studdert

There is a risk Oflog serves to reinforce the status quo in the sector, instead of grabbing an opportunity to drive a more transformational stance across tiers of governance.

Judging the performance of councils on a series of narrow output measures bypasses the wider direction of travel towards place-based integration and new ways of working that deeply involve communities in decision making. Metrics should not be determined by national politicians, but co-produced with citizens to be more outcome focused and meaningful – perhaps covering wellbeing, participation or progress on levelling up. Deepening understanding about the progress towards such cross-cutting outcomes would provide a valuable feedback loop for the impact of national siloed and disconnected policy in places.

One might go so far as to ask whether there is a case for an Office for Central Government – providing parallel data and analysis of the performance of government departments and supporting their improvement. Short of this, there is a role for Oflog to play across Whitehall in developing a more consistent approach to local government as a sector and to ‘places' as a concept.

In the context of extreme financial pressure on the sector, it is increasingly dishonest to separate the concept of ‘performance' from the sufficiency of funding. Oflog may well identify councils in financial trouble more promptly, but its remit looks set to only allow it to note each on a case by case basis, without engaging in their reality of rising demand for services and highly volatile operating context. If this is the case, Oflog's interventions will only pathologise the sector rather than credibly highlight more systemic issues.

It's hard to see how national politicians will avoid the temptation to use Oflog as a political tool ahead of the General Election and to gradually expand its mission in the longer term. The sector should develop a united view about its purpose and the value it can add, in context of a wider renewed settlement between national and local government in the next Parliament.

Jessica Studdert is deputy chief executive at New Local

X – @jesstud

Cllr Abi Brown

We're committed to continuing to work with Government to ensure Oflog fits within the Local Government Association (LGA) sector-led improvement work that is already underway, delivered by local government for local government.

Since Secretary of State Michael Gove launched Oflog at the LGA's annual conference in July, the association has continued to call for it to be an independent body that is co-designed with local government. It is vital it is not subject to political interference from Government and is able to make independent decisions.

The LGA's own award-winning data tool LG Inform is shaped through direct engagement with councils and already does what Oflog's Local Authority Data Explorer does – and much more. We've consistently promoted LG Inform as an existing resource that could be utilised by Oflog, so we are disappointed this offer hasn't been taken up.

Currently, the Local Authority Data Explorer contains fewer than 20 metrics and, although officials are clear that it will increase this number over time, LG Inform already contains more than 12,000 data items and users can make comparisons between their authority and other groups of councils as well as pulling reports on different themes such as housing, planning applications, community cohesion issues and health.

It's an important principle that councils are responsible for their own performance and improvement, with the LGA providing councils with essential tools, resources and support to facilitate their continuous improvement. We also maintain an overview of the performance of the sector.

Over recent months, the LGA has been both convening discussions around improving assurance, as well as how we can continue to offer the very best sector-led support, including refreshing the Corporate Peer Challenge and raising awareness of other programmes around transformation.

It's important we show leadership in driving local government's continuous improvement by pushing further what the LGA itself can do.

Cllr Abi Brown is chairman of the LGA innovation and improvement board

X – @AbiBrown1

Leigh Whitehouse

It is not controversial to say something needs to be done to address the pressure and tipping point facing local authorities across the UK.

We're seeing a growing number of councils issuing section 114 notices and some of the triggers for that are things that could and should have been picked up and addressed some time ago.

Could additional external scrutiny have prevented those issues? In some cases, perhaps, but even having spotted the signs, the actions necessary to shift course may not be easy to achieve. It is also self-evident that as the financial tide falls, the shortcomings of organisations, or the impact of poor choices, are more exposed.

It's certainly a good thing Oflog will be data-led, hopefully maintaining its objectivity and avoiding too much political influence.

The early metrics seem unavoidably partial, but it's clear these will evolve over time. We must be careful not to be solely guided by hitting narrow metrics targets across these Oflog areas or see them as a sort of ‘league table'. Each place has its own drivers, demographics and determinants, and while neighbour comparators can be useful, they rarely tell the whole story.

From early engagement from Oflog chairman Lord Morse, and its interim chief executive Josh Goodman, I'm confident (in the short term at least) its focus will be very much on supporting the sector rather than undermining it. But how Oflog and its priorities evolve over time is more uncertain.

Whether Oflog is the answer to the current difficulties facing local authorities, or even part of the solution, is unknown – ultimately it's too early to tell – but it's clear there are risks and nervousness in the sector, as well as potential opportunities.

We need to work with Oflog and help it focus on the right things, and it's important engagement takes place between all partners in our areas – not just local councils – to recognise that sector sustainability requires a whole-place, whole-system approach.

Leigh Whitehouse is deputy chief executive and executive director for resources at Surrey CC

X – @SurreyNews

Barry Quirk

It is a good idea to have Oflog curate key information about councils. Admittedly, the LGA's Inform database is a source of reliable comparative information on council performance, challenges and activity, but local government's sponsor department, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), needs a valid and reliable information base on which to determine its policy, funding and regulations.

It has to be so much better to have ministerial decisions that are based on evidence rather than on fiat. So I welcome Oflog.

It is far easier to describe a problem than to understand it. The sky is blue, but what makes it blue? And it is easier to understand something than explain it. I understand how the microwave works in my kitchen, but I can't explain it – until perhaps I have spent quite a while googling about it. But the highest standard of scientific method goes beyond description, understanding, explanation and interpretation – it is the reliable and consistent ability to predict something.

Of all the universe of possible outcomes, will A happen or is it more likely B, C or D might happen? And that is why it is best DLUHC does not request Oflog to predict which councils are most likely to fail next. In industrial policy, governments have long since shied away from picking winners, but in some areas of public policy all governments seem prone to want to pick losers.

In his 1934 masterpiece The Rock, T S Eliot composed beautifully meaningful prose and free verse that has resonated across almost 100 years. Here's one phrase: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, where is the knowledge we have lost in information'. Perhaps, in the 2020s, we may as well add, ‘and where is the information we have lost in data and generative AI?'

What we expect of our public leaders, whether they are elected or appointed, is the wisdom to interpret the available knowledge, information and data in careful, thoughtful and publicly purposeful ways. Oflog should help achieve just that.

Barry Quirk CBE is a former council chief executive and local government adviser, and a former president and chairman of Solace

X – @Barry Quirk1

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