Abolish the Audit Commission, Ofsted and more

The Ideas Factory is a chance for you to pitch your own idea of what should be in the next Liberal Democrat manifesto. The proposal here is not the policy of the Social Liberal Forum. We will however be passing it – and the response it generates – onto the Manifesto Working Group.

The Proposal

Richard Church: Public services are now more accountable to inspectors than they are to the public they serve. Millions are spent on auditing and inspecting schools, hospitals, police and every aspect of local authority services, and millions more are spent by public services in preparing for and responding to inspections. We live by the star ratings and the sound bites that these inspections produce, and public services live or die by a few distorted words in an inspectors report.

The Lib Dem pledge for health services, police etc to be more accountable to local government or new elected bodies will mean nothing unless we take a hatchet to nationally imposed inspection regimes. There will always be a role for checking that public money is soundly spent and that public entitlements are delevered, but from those basics a centralised and self perpetuating inspection industry has grown. Inspections have become routine, when they should be exceptional, to be used when a problem is perceived.

We need to make the inspection industry responsive to local concerns,it should itself be a service that can be harnessed by a local community to tackle a service that has become unresponsive and is offering poor value.

We should create a single locally based inspection agency, able to respond to public concerns about a service (maybe through a petition, scrutiny or councillor concerns) and able to call on natiional specialist expertise to inspect and report on a service giving cause for concern. It clearly needs to be independent of local government, but with the authority to inspect within and beyond local government. The key though is that it is only empowered to act where a sound and verifiable concern has been raised.

Localism means taking some risks, many services will be far more responsive to local needs, but there will always be some that will fail. Inspections can help a service to improve through comparison and challenge, but it does not need the highly centralised and formulaic regime of inspection we have at present. Think of the money we will save!


Susan Gaszczak: This is exactly the way I see localism working. Inspections bring services to a stand still and often the results do not capture the reality of a service, as we know locally in Hertfordshire. 3* Adult Care Service but contractors being sacked for not providing care!

Inspections should be handled locally, by people who see the day to day service but are not connected with the service. They should be driven by residents or the results of the specified service. Councillors should be given more powers to be able to scrutinize in much more depth.

By doing this we would save millions in lost man hours, spun reports and loss of service for residents because officers are too tied up reporting to the inspectors. The further area that stems from this is exactly where we need KPI’s and how they should be set.

Chris White: The Audit Commission is, of course, not primarily an inspecting body – that function is very new. Its prime role is that of audit.

I presume that we are not suggesting abolishing the national audit function nor indeed proposing that local authorities can choose their own auditors. Indeed, it could be argued that audit objectivity in the private sector could be improved if companies had their auditors appointed by an external agency.

(Yes: I am an Audit Commissioner so you may wish to dismiss this as special pleading).

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4 comments on “Abolish the Audit Commission, Ofsted and more
  1. Telling Lies!!! says:

    Yes certainly abolish a great many inspection agencies, but it’s not clear what your’re replacing them with.

    If the single local inspection body “clearly needs to be independent of local government” who appoints the members?

    The public should. The principle is that whoever runs public services should be directly accountable to the public at the lowest appropriate level. I think your new inpection agencies should really be reempowered local councils without centrally imposed regimes, and extendedly empowered (couldn’t think of a better term unfortunately) to have the right to audit local NHS etc. operations, and have the same powers to push changes as the current inspectors.

    Localism means subsidiarity and democracy – let councils run the services that can be run locally, and let them inspect those that can’t.

  2. Steve Comer says:

    I can accept that audit (especially financial audit) may be different and may require some common national standards, but most of the inspection regimes are simply biureacracies which distort priorities.

    I remember meeting a northern Labour leader at an IDeA event who compared his council with the one that bordered it. The next door Labour council had 4* CPA improving well etc, and his was, well a bit of a basket case realy. When challenged he said ‘”we only lost one bloody seat at t’elections, and them buggers are now in no overall control.”
    A tad cynical perhaps, but I think it shows there can be a gap between what inspectors see and what local people feel….

  3. David Heigham says:

    The Audit Commission do a great deal of very valuable work on auditing and on value for money. It is valuable because it useful to locla managers and potentially very relevant to local political responsibility.
    But can anyone recall anything at all done by our national inspection functions that has been systematically useful to anyone? Occasional crack downs on individual cases of under-performance don’t count: the longer term effect of those is to confuse who is accountable. Confused accountabilities and responsibilities can be relied upon to produce future problems.
    Before we design some new, less damaging, less wasteful and less ineffective agency to replace the lumbering inspection complex which is one of Labour’s legacies, don’t we need to sat why and how it is likely to function better than no inspectorates at all?

  4. Paul Fox says:

    Broadly agree with the main article, and sorry to disagree with Chris (White) who has declared his interest! The Audit Commission in the 90s was useful – performed the audit function and did VFM reports comparing and establishing best practice – since then it has been corrupted and extended into areas essentially beyond its competence as a key part of the culture of targets and spin.

    In too many areas Local Government is now basically a case of keeping the auditors happy – if you do that then you can keep the members happy and they in turn can face the electorate (who may well see through all of this – but if they do you get a new lot of members and so the cycle starts again!)

    CAA won’t help as it pretends that the local authority has a local leadership role that in reality it doesn’t even if we would like it too and takes the Audit Commission further beyond its remit. (e.g. under CAA the auditors can work out that lack of affordable housing is an issue but then they blame the council for that – yet who actually has the financial capacity do tackle this issue – the government agency is the Homes & Communities Agency but they are not part of the CAA remit – so so-called Comprehensive Performance Assessment is not really very comprehensive at all…….I could go on

    Yes, bring back real audit and inspection /intervention targeted according to risk. Perhaps we could even have local government accounts that lay people or even councillors could understand.

    If we believe in risk based regulation – then can anyone now justify the regulation / audit / inspection framework for local government compared to that of the financial services / banking industry? In most areas of the public sector the best risk management from the point of view of staff is to rely on past auditor recommendations rather than professional judgement based on the actual circumstances- safest for the staff isn’t always the same as best for the customer / client.

    Over the next decade the price of the financial / economic mess we are in will be paid in public sector cuts – better to cut the non-productive audit and bureaucratic command and control regimes (and I include the quangos, central government departments and the consequent costs in local government) than front line services.

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