Hello Mr Inspector, not staying for a cuppa?

The best citizen inspector ever... Go Go Gadget!

It’s guest post day at WLLG; today with some provocative thoughts about citizen inspection and life after the audit commission. If you would like to submit a guest post (we love guest posts) please drop us a line at welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com but not before you’ve read this:

Every since I was a little girl, I remember taking exams, tests, interviews and answering questions. Our lives revolve around being tested and dreading the results that are posted or emailed to our post and now inboxes. Granted, I still have nightmares about my Maths A-level!

Local authorities are no exception. They used to have multitudes of inspections; Ofsted, CA inspections, peer inspections, cross borough inspections. The list continues. ..

My first ever job in a Local Authority came one month before an Ofsted inspection. Plants appeared from nowhere. The printers started working. We had daily walk abouts from our Director. Supervision notes were sent straight to HR. Desks were cleared. The heating was turned on (it was January at this point). Team meetings were given to ensure we stayed on message.

My role in the Ofsted inspection was to train up 10 community members to mirror their inspection. They would lead on their own line of enquiry and report straight back to Ofsted. We recruited and trained them and they then went out into the world and interviewed and inspected various community centres. When it came to presenting their findings to the inspectors, we all sat at the back with baited breath. I remember the whole room going quite still in preparation for their verdict.

These particular community members graded us as a good council. Exceptional was a far way off for them. Ofsted left praising the scheme and the community members, thoroughly impressed that they could give their views. My Director gave me a nod of approval. I had passed my probation!

The reason I’m writing this is because I’m a keen follower of the political party conferences. I have been watching my sector – engagement and consultation – closely over the last few months. I have been seeing changes from slogans such as the “Big Society” to “community auditors” and “governors”. The Tory’s have been shouting about local inspections, led by local people.

With the audit commission being abolished – this begs the question of: “who makes sure that Local Authorities are doing their best for the community?” KPI’s have gone, Government Offices, standardised inspections have gone… are we asking communities to take control? If we are, I foresee some major problems ahead:

  1. Local Authorities have so much jargon embedded in them, that a friend of mine is creating his own Jargon App for his iPhone. Even my Director pulls me aside after a meeting and asks me what a LSP is (less said the better here). How are we going to get back to speaking plain English. Is it possible?
  2. Some Authorities enjoy the power of community control. I have seen a number of inspections now, and they are always polished, or steered to support a better inspection result. Asking them to give that up won’t be an easy sell. I can see community leaders being given carefully written briefs with no strategic training or support to help the question what information they are being given.
  3. How much do people really care about the other 15 miles around them? Enough to give up 2 evenings a week away from the kids and X Factor?
  4. Will they be able to see real change in a tangible timescale? Change for Local Authorities takes years, sometimes decades. I can’t see a father of 3 staying on a committee panel for that amount of time and contributing properly. It is people like him that we need to talk to.
  5. Won’t it be the same people who attend community meetings at the moment? The ones where the Chair has to have his/her note taker nudge them every so often to prevent them from falling asleep. Or where the tissues come out because Mrs Bailey has had her door kicked in again, but the Police haven’t reported it in the long winded stats they use to throw everyone off the path. The one person who takes over the meeting with the usual doom and gloom; and how the borough/ county isn’t what it used to be. I’m very glad I don’t go to these meetings anymore.

I do worry about this. Interactive, thorough and informed community groups take time, resources and drive to cultivate. With staff being made redundant, old staff taking on additional responsibilities that aren’t their specialities, training budgets slashed – how are we really going to involve our communities in a meaningful and informed way? It’s impossible.

Four steps up the ladder, 14 steps back.

Where is your Local Authority now? Where do you think it will be by the next election?

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

Explore posts in the same categories: Big P Politics, The future of Local Govt

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3 Comments on “Hello Mr Inspector, not staying for a cuppa?”

  1. Ed Hammond Says:

    Whatever the question is, scrutiny committees are the answer!

    Yes, I know, but ultimately if you’re talking about needing a credible and legitimate form of local accountability that is evidence led and impartial (and continuous, in a way that ad hoc citizen “inspections” and, of course, elections, cannot be) then O&S is where it’s at.

    Alongside this, you need engaged citizens – but you also need to recognise that they’ll probably only be interested in one or two issues. That isn’t a bad thing, or a reason to take them less seriously, but may give you cause to think more carefully about the composition of individual residents’ panels for different issues. My own gut feeling is that this should be led by residents, but facilitated by the council, if that makes sense – so residents drive the process if they want to.

    Key to this is the ability to make information readily available in a comprehensible way, at the right time. Expenditure data is never going to set the world alight (and presented in the wrong way it does more harm than good) but more openness will hopefully create a positive feedback loop whereby local people will be increasingly encouraged to use official data to come forward and make their point heard. Of course, data literacy is a crucial part of this, and I’m not sure if it’s going to be quite as easy as the “transparency revolution” that the government seems to think is about to happen.

  2. Howard Says:

    Inspection sounds plausible, but after years of Audit Commission and other sorts of inspection haven’t we learnt that you cannot inspect quality into a system.

    Even with tenant inspectors (and many organisations have them) you still find very poor services.

    Why is this? Firstly the presumption is that groups of resident inspectors can ‘see’ problems.

    Secondly the presumption is that by passing power to inspect to inspectors that this will somehow force an public body to do something.

    Thirdly, often the presumption is that the problem is how staff deliver a current service, rather than how the system has been designed.

    Fourthly, inspectors of any sort become caught within a thinking trap.

    In my humble (but well-informed and evidence-based) opinion, inspectors is a neat way to maintain the status quo.

    The real inspectors should be leaders going out to understand how their service is delivering and the consequences of their leadership.

  3. I’m not sure why but this site is loading very slow for me.

    Is anyone else having this problem or is it a issue on my end?

    I’ll check back later and see if the problem still exists.

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