De-commissioned

When I began working for the Audit Commission in 1994, the ten year-old organisation was on a roll. The investigation into Westminster City Council\’s gerrymandering scandal was making headlines, local authority performance indicators were being published for the first time, and reports on issues such as youth offending and regeneration seemed as critical of a tired Conservative government as they were of local authority and health service practice. With its recital of what now sound like tired or even trite mantras – \’customer focus\’, \’joined up government\’, \’evidence-based management\’ – the Commission was the very model of modern managerialism.

Despite this rising profile, worries persisted about the Commission\’s future under a Labour government. John Smith had pledged their abolition in 1992, but contact had gradually been established, first through back channels and then more openly with Frank Dobson, then shadow local government minister. Jack Dromey still referred to the Audit Commission as \”the accountancy wing of the Conservative Party\”, but his tone became jocular rather than threatening.

Slowly, it became clear that New Labour had no intention of abolishing the Audit Commission. Far from it, the government-in-waiting wanted to expand, and radically alter, the Commission\’s remit. With the exception of flagrant misbehaviour, as witnessed at Westminster, the Commission\’s performance reporting was traditionally as dry and detached as its audit judgements. Performance indicators were hedged around by caveats about local circumstances and local discretion, and national value-for-money reports made generic recommendations, the pill often sweetened by sideswipes at the policy framework set by central government.

New Labour had other ideas. The Audit Commission would become a vital tool in the crusade to improve public services (or Stalinist control-freakery, depending on your perspective). Under the Best Value regime, then the Comprehensive Performance Assessment and Comprehensive Area Assessment regimes that replaced it (inspect-o-rrhoea?), the Audit Commission and its emissaries would sit in judgement on elected local authorities, awarding them star-ratings, or red or green flags on the basis of their performance.

The argument that the Commission was simply publishing information, allowing local people to set their own priorities and their own criteria in judging council performance, providing fuel for accountability, vanished. The man from the Audit Commission knew what was good, from Lampeter to Lambeth, and would judge local authorities against these benchmarks.

Michael O\’Higgins, the Audit Commission\’s chief executive, spoke last week of the irony of the Commission\’s abolition, when local authority performance has improved (with the unspoken assumption that the Commission has been responsible for this improvement). A deeper irony still is that, if the Audit Commission had not so enthusiastically embraced a chance to operate as shock troops for the New Labour revolution, they might not today be being sacrificed on the altar of localism.

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