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.
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!
: 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.
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).