Well done, Eric! Giving local authority managers the freedom to innovate is a good, and essential, step. Pickles’ insistence that the well feeding the flood of central guidance has dried up is excellent news. The compliance with his New Labour predecessors’ ideologically-driven, wrong-headed prescriptions caused mayhem in our public services. It has driven them in exactly the wrong direction.
But he should be on his guard, because the guidance-mongers are not going to give up their cherished tool-kits, guidance notes and reporting requirements without a struggle. Top of the list for Pickles’ attention should be the Audit Commission, a guidance-monger of a special and most egregious sort.
It is the Audit Commission that has enforced compliance with much of the old regime’s ideological nonsense, the Audit Commission that drove the development of targets and obliged local authorities to adopt ‘best practice’ requirements through inspection and rankings. The cost of the inspectors’ ticks and stars has been high: worse services at unnecessary cost. Councillors across the land have puzzled at the bizarre contradiction between the Audit Commission’s ratings and the complaints in their surgeries.
The Commission was set up by the Thatcher government to be the bully for change in local authorities, and its coercive power was reinforced by the last regime. While they wait for clarity on its future role, the body’s new chief executive and senior team are lobbying for a continued part in promulgating ‘best practice’. When Pickles is in the process of closing down the failed old specifications machine (at least two cheers), the last thing we need is new ones sprouting.
The Audit Commission differs from other guidance-mongers because of the power implicit in its relationship with the inspected. Until that power is reined in, local authority managers will hesitate to be radical for fear of punishment when the inspector calls. So finish what you have started, Eric. Rein the Audit Commission back to ‘following the money’, ensuring probity. Then local councils really will be able to ‘get on with it’, as you have rightly urged.
Professor John Seddon is an occupational psychologist, researcher, professor, management thinker and leading authority on change in the public sector. He is a visiting professor at Cardiff University
Business School and author of several best sellers including ‘Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, the Failure of the Reform Regime…. and a Manifesto for a Better Way’ and ‘Freedom from Command and