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Gearing up for inspection

Local authorities are preparing for the first Best Value inspections of their muncipal engineering services but strong doubts remain as to whether performance can be properly measured. Damian Arnold reports.

INSPECTORS are fastening their raincoats in readiness for knocking on the door of a local authority near you to inspect their Best Value regimes.

Fifteen Best Value inspectors from the Audit Commission will be unleashed on municipal engineering services throughout the country by early autumn.

But the Commission's inspectors are still said to be unsure about how well local authorities are adapting to the new Best Value regime.

Local authorities have been obliged to spend their money under the Best Value regime from 1 April, the day when compulsory competitive tendering officially came to an end. Under CCT, local authorities were under pressure to award contracts for construction and engineering services to the lowest bidder, even though this often failed to give value for money.

Under Best Value local authorities can assess bids in terms of quality as well as price.

But the problem they face is one of finding robust performance indicators to prove to the spending watchdogs at the Audit Commission that they are maximising value for money for they services they procure. Councils are under orders from central government to procure according to the four cs: challenge, compare, compete and consult although there is some confusion about how this should be interpreted.

Local authority engineers are expected to develop their own more detailed intepretation of the four cs that are more relevant to the work they procure.

The Government has developed a national set of 140 performance indicators, although these are considered too vague to be applied to engineering services. There also appears to be conflict between the Audit Commission and the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions over the usefulness of these indicators.

Lead Inspector of the Audit Commission's Best Value Inspection Service Ian Drummond will rally engineers to do more to develop their own performance indicators at this week's Association of Municipal Engineers' conference in Edinburgh this week. 'What we are trying to do is encourage engineers to develop more inclusive and informative performance indicators, ' he says. 'Only six of the national ones are relevant to roads and civil engineering and they tend to be input led. We need output led performance indicators like quality and reliability of journey times which is a key issue concerning the people out there.'

Drummond has charged the chairman of the ICE-led Best Value Task Force David Green to develop a guide for municipal engineers to develop their own indicators. It is hoped that the new guide will be issued in September as a supplement to the Task Force's official guide launched last month. Green says: 'The national performance indicators will not measure real efficiency and I don't personally think they are worth the paper they are written on.'

How to measure Best Value is already a subject of intense discussion between the Audit Commission, local authority chief executives and engineering directors. Drummond is co-ordinating initial visits to 35 councils in the South to raise awareness ahead of a five year inspection programme during which all municipal services will be reviewed. In the last week he has visited Fareham, Reading, Chiltern, South Buckinghamshire, Isle Valley and Test Valley councils.

Seconded to the Commission inspectorate last year from his role as head of traffic safety at Northamptonshire County Council, Drummond relates to the enormous challenge facing local authorities. 'Our current visits are an opening gambit to look at their programme of reviews and explain our methodology of inspection. The inspections themselves will take a week to 10 days. The aim is to have a fast turnover and every local authority will have an inspection of some service by the end of this year.'

The Audit Commission plans to collect performance data from around the country to produce star ratings for local authority engineering services.

This will be done on the basis of three stars for excellent, two for good, one for OK and none for poor.

The Commission will also give a view on whether a service will improve under Best Value proposals. It is also possible that it could even produce performance league tables.

Many local authorities have already begun to adopt Best Value principles in highway maintenance. So far, the Audit Commission has been encouraged by these efforts. But some local authorities have shown so far that they are unwilling and incapable of carrying out a proper review, warns Drummond.

'People find the process of reviewing their own service very challenging and hard. There's a psychological block on picking your own work to bits. You literally have to ask questions like 'Why do we maintain roads? Why is it the law? What is the service we provide?' People are just not used to doing it, ' he says.

Others are reviewing one service in too much detail and missing the wider picture, says Green. 'You can't just look at something like highway maintenance in isolation. You have to look at the wider context of getting the public from A to B which involves other services.'

Reviews of existing procurement regimes will result in the performance plans which will set out new methods of procuring under Best Value. These plans will have to show a high level of public consultation. To Drummond, this poses a particular challenge to municipal engineers because of a prevailing culture that 'engineers know best' while Green predicts it is the consultation fatigued general public that will have the problem.

He says: 'A lot of people are losing their belief in the consultation process.' Public consultations such as the 12M questionnaires recently sent out on the state of the NHS and local authority consultations on local transport plans and waste are making the public increasingly cynical, he adds.

'There is a temptation for the public to think that the Government has already made up its mind about these services or that services ring fenced by Government policy give the public a very small opportunity to influence them.'

Elected members are also beginning to 'chunter' at the consultation blitz which is 'marginalising' their role. Green says: 'A lot of them are questioning all this consultation. They're saying 'hang on I'm supposed to represent the people so what's my role?' ' Green predicts that DETR could drop consultation from the Best Value criteria altogether. 'It's my belief that it is beginning to feel that it won't push this too hard. Engaging with the market (rather than the public) will become the important thing.'

Amid the anxiety local authorities are applauded for work already carried out. There have been 30 vountary Best Value trials in the last year. 'I've been particularly impressed by authorities who have already involved people from outside organisations such as local traders and environmental groups in preparing their policy reviews, ' says Drummond.

He predicts that municipal engineering departments will largely avoid being referred to the Secretary of State for not conforming to Best Value. 'Engineers are adaptable and have a good understanding of Best Value, ' he says. 'They are quite open and have started to look at innovative ways of procuring services already such as partnership arrangements with outside consultants which meet cyclical demand more easily but retain a public sector ethic.'

At this delicate stage, assessments of how Best Value is working differ. Drummond says: 'We've found so far that while people are wary of Best Value and the processes involved they generally welcome the concept of continuous improvement and the support the Audit Commission can give.'

Green is more cynical: 'We won't be able to properly assess Best Value for another two to three years but the feeling is that it tends to work on the premise that everybody is good and that everybody will play the game. It will not be regulated as robustly as cars, supermarkets or insurance for example. The public deserves better.'

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