Mark Wallace: The abolition of Comprehensive Area Assessments is to be welcomed
ConservativeHome has broken a lot of surprising stories over the years. Here’s another one: I agree with the Local Government Association about something.
Shocking, isn’t it? I almost fell off my chair myself, and I’m sure the LGA will be no less surprised.
Fittingly, as the Coalition Government is all about bringing together unlikely bedfellows, it is one of their policies that has put both me and the LGA on the same page: the abolition of Comprehensive Area Assessments (CAAs).
I wrote here back in December when the CAAs were launched that they were a pointless, uninformative exercise. It’s nice to know that Eric Pickles not only reads ConHome but apparently agrees with my observation!
The Comprehensive Area Assessment was introduced to replace the old, failed star system of grading council performance.
The stars just didn’t work. The Audit Commission cost every council a fortune chasing up statistics and strategy documents, only to give them a relatively meaningless star grade that swiftly became devalued as almost every council got either 3 or 4 of the possible 4 stars.
Councils that local residents felt were overcharging and underperforming were able to rebut all criticism by pointing to an arbitrary grading of their work given by a distant quango.
Due to the obvious flaws in the star system, the Audit Commission and the Brown Government eventually gave in to public and town hall pressure and scrapped it.
Of course, it was never going to be that simple.
Having got rid of a bureaucratic, uninformative process that encouraged councils to jump through arbitrary hoops set by the Audit Commission rather than the people, and which then gave the public limited information that was far too broad, they replaced it with the CAAs – a system which took those very problems to a whole new level.
Instead of being ranked out of four stars, the CAA rated each council with either a red or a green flag, signifying whether they were “good” or not. Fairly obviously, this was even less precise than before.
While extending the depth of information gathered and the number of forms that needed to be filled out by council officers, the public got data in an even more limited resolution than previously.
For these reasons, both I and the LGA – as well as thousands of council officers – are happy to see the CAAs crumpled up and thrown in the Whitehall wastepaper basket where they belong.
The simple fact is that even when they were first launched, they were already obsolete.
Councils like Windsor & Maidenhead were producing detailed, real information about their spending and policy decisions. They were even publishing half-hourly readouts on their energy meters (saving 15% on their bills).
By the time the CAAs were launched in December 2009, W&M had already commissioned an online transparency tool to give unparalleled insight into what and how they do their work, and provide comparison with other councils nationally (you can see it here).
Essentially, by launching Comprehensive Area Assessments the Audit Commission had brought an Etch-a-Sketch to an iPad convention.
Their abolition – and the parallel policy of every council publishing all spending over £500 - heralds a real shift in local government’s priorities. Instead of running themselves ragged conforming to the often bizarre private expectations of a quango like the Audit Commission, now they will answer to the people in their local area.
When you think of it like that, it becomes clear that it was mad to move away from that principle in the first place.