I was surprised that the weekend announcement that Wandsworth, joined by Hammersmith and Fulham, would be limiting their involvement with the Comprehensive Area Assessment didn’t get more coverage.
On reflection, it was only a surprise because of who I am and what I do. I’m a councillor, so am aware of the amount of work these things involve, and also (and this is also a declaration of interest) do some – very limited – work for the Audit Commission as a ‘Lead Support Peer’ . This, to me, was a big thing. But not to anyone else, it turns out.
The lack of coverage probably shows why it was the right thing to do. For years we’ve been working hard to do well in these assessments, but when it comes down to it no-one really cares. It reminds me of the lesson I learnt years ago (to which I’ve referred before) that it’s terribly easy to think that you are involved in the most important thing in the world when, in fact, you never are.
This isn’t to say that the Comprehensive Area Assessment and its predecessors weren’t useful and didn’t serve a purpose. The really bad, and often mad, councils that littered the country hardly exist anymore. This, in no small part, is down to the rigour of a national inspection regime. To condemn it as a box-ticking exercise (as I have in the title, though I never claimed consistency) betrays a lack of understanding of what it has achieved elsewhere. Assessments can be incredibly positive things, helping an organisation or individual improve. I’ve seen this happen too many times to believe assessment per se is a bad thing.
But while they helped the really poor councils improve to a more acceptable standard, they did nothing for the high performing councils. And this is where Wandsworth has suffered. For years we were promised that high performing councils would get more freedoms, but few were forthcoming, and none were that meaningful. Instead we found ourselves going through the processes of completing self-assessments, providing evidence, being interviewed, hosting the assessment teams and general scurrying about. And it had a huge cost.
The council’s press release suggest they cost the local tax-payer around £200,000. I’m not going to quibble that figure. I have been an advocate for withdrawing from these assessments for a few years now, largely after seeing how much time senior officers were spending pleasing external assessors rather than local residents. It seemed that for at least a quarter of any year I had another priority forced on me – “The Assessment”. It didn’t matter what I felt was important, or what demands we faced from residents, somewhere and somehow we had to service the needs of the assessment. To me, having to dedicate officer time for an annual review rather than serving local residents to get nothing in return is a price not worth paying.
And most residents didn’t care that we were a four star authority (I would guess most would assume the top score was actually five), instead they cared that we emptied the bins, removed graffiti promptly, fixed our roads, looked after the young and the old, maintained our parks or any of the other services Wandsworth performs excellently on a daily basis.
The problem with the assessments for a high performing borough was that instead of being something that helped us improve, it became something that got in the way. Instead of helping us meet the priorities of residents, we were meeting the priorities of assessment teams. And instead of bringing us more freedom, it tied us down year after year.
Perhaps we took too long, but I think we’ve come to the right decision.