Councils prepare for ratings slide

Local council give their views on the Audit Commission’s tougher performance criteria. By Sarah Robertson

The Audit Commission – charged with ensuring services such as education and environmental management are improving – is raising the bar of its Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA), which, in layman's terms, means an overhaul in the way local government services are rated.

The AC's 'harder test' sounds ominous, and the inevitable slide down the grading system for many local authorities could be a PR problem.
When the CPA was introduced in 2002, 50 per cent of councils were rated 'good' or 'excellent'. Two years later almost 70 per cent had these ratings, leaving limited scope to measure further improvement – lower-rated councils are audited more frequently and rigorously than those held in higher regard.

A third of London boroughs and a quarter of county councils expect to be downgraded, according to a survey by the Local Government Chronicle (LGC), fuelling fears that criticism will flow from local press. 'It will be hard to explain why a council has been downgraded when it is improving. The local press will have a field day,' says LGC news editor Varya Shaw.

The Audit Commission is planning a series of regional roadshows, starting with London this month, to explain the system to council PROs and to advise on media-handling.

'We will produce [documents] to help councils explain performance to taxpayers and media,' says the commission's news editor Victoria Walker.

The commission plans a press offensive in November, by which time details of the new requirements will be finalised. However, the immediate concern for councils is communicating the change internally, getting staff on board and keeping morale high.
Furthermore, the change will demand higher standards of comms. 'The new test puts much more emphasis on the evidence of good communications [with the public],' says Norfolk County Council head of communications Joanna Hannam. 'The commission will now take public satisfaction scores into account.'

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