Residents should not need the mind of Poirot or the skills of a computer geek to find out the quality of local public services. Yet that is what I fear is beginning to happen as performance information becomes increasingly hard to find, often hidden within impenetrable spreadsheets or the deepest chasms of government websites.
This week Wandsworth is throwing open the cloak of secrecy that is in danger of emerging by launching ‘Open Council’ – a highly promoted section of our website where an army of local armchair auditors can easily contrast and compare how we are performing alongside other London boroughs.
The information covers everything from pupil progress in maths and English, the number of library books issued to the number of carers receiving support and the number of local roads in need of repair. It shows areas where improvement is needed, such as increasing the recycling rate across the borough.
We are doing this not because we are the best council in all areas, but because we want our residents to be able to get a complete picture on how their council performs across the range of services. They should not have to rely on piecemeal inspection reports in some areas or the drip drip of information that is often only promoted if the local council has got something to shout about.
By giving our residents a clear picture they can hold us to account and decide whether or not they are receiving value for money for the council tax they pay. Where we are below average the decision makers will explain why and what we are doing to improve our performance.
The power of information can spark a debate and that has to be good for local democracy. Ultimately greater transparency and openness will drive us to become an even better council.
In terms of major presentation we are concentrating on the top 27 performance measures we believe matter to our residents the most, but there is a clear link where residents can easily see the full list of all the indicators that we report. If they want to move some of the others into the top list they can do so by voting.
Residents can see how we compare alongside other London boroughs using information that is already (somewhere) in the public domain. We are not doing this to potentially embarrass others, we are only interested in ourselves, yet our residents would not have the full picture unless they can contrast and compare.
Personally, we hope other councils will follow our example. Local government should not need the red tape and expense of the Audit Commission to tell us how good or bad we are. Our residents should be the ones that judge us, not faceless bureaucrats. We are finally making the concept of the ‘Armchair Auditor’ a reality.