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Peer challenge: so far so good but where now?
Local Government Chronicle – 26 July 2012

With the first peerchallenges of the sector-led improvement drive now compltete, Mark Smulian analyses the lessons learned.

Suppose that, when it decided to abolish the Audit Commission, the government had been persuaded to keep the old inspection regime.

There could be something - let's call it Ofcouncil - grilling local authorities on targets for painting white lines or hanging floral baskets, and then 'naming and shaming' recalcitrants.

Ofcouncil's non-existence has been a significant victory for the sector, which is now trusted to look after its own improvement with the LGA's new peer challenge system.

Instead of putting on a show for suspicious inspectors, councils are expected to work openly together to identify problems and come up with solutions.

Peer challenges involve a team, usually including a leader and chief executive, which casts a fresh eye on a council's workings and offers disinterested advice on improvement.

LGA improvement board chair Peter Fleming (Con) says: "Local government is not where it was 20 years ago, this is not inspection-lite, and we're not a Trojan horse for the government. This is councils inviting peers in."

The old system was unpopular, but many councils made substantial improvements. Any backsliding and the government might intervene again, so the sector must make peer challenge work.

LGA principal adviser Andy Bates says peer challenge offers "assurance to the sector", rather than directly to the government, but no doubt it does also reassure the government.

"We lobbied successfully for the sector to do this for itself, as it had improved very significantly," he says.

Every council is entitled to a free peer challenge by 2014. Peers will look at 'core' subjects: corporate effectiveness; political leadership; and financial viability and decision making; but beyond that councils can choose where they would like the focus to fall.

A separate system exists for children's services (see overleaf) and one is developing for adult services. Paid-for challenges are available for some other specialist fields, but have been little used.

Mr Bates concedes the challenge's voluntary nature may mean that councils most in need are the most reluctant to participate.

"There is always a risk that parts of the sector choose not to engage," he says. "But this should appeal as it is not judgmental but supportive, and focuses on the issues councils choose."

One contentious question is whether peer challenge reports should be published.

Mr Bates says councils should decide this, but "we would encourage them to". A report by Cardiff Business School's Steve Martin on the first 20 completed peer challenges, said there should be "a presumption in favour" of publishing.

"Most local authorities do not see these reports as something the public will have much interest in, and that is probably right," Professor Martin says.

"They are not a way of being accountable to the public; they are a tool for improvement. But it is right to publish except where that would get in the way of a local authority being honest with itself about improving."

Prof Martin also recognises that poor performers may duck challenges, but says: "If three years from now only a third of councils have done a peer challenge I would be disappointed. There must be an effort by the LGA to market them."

Some councils have found it hard to shake the old 'inspection' mindset of keeping skeletons firmly in cupboards when peers call.

"Councils told us that they had spent a decade in that and needed to get away from the idea of putting on a good show, and instead be honest and open," Prof Martin says.

"One council was found briefing its staff before they met the team and, when peers complained, it was stopped."

For the first few challenges the LGA was free to pick the best qualified officers and councillors. Could quality be sustained were every district to request a challenge?

"On a larger scale we would need something to check the quality of peer challenge teams," Prof Martin says.

"The whole thing depends very much on their quality, as there are not key lines of enquiry or targets anymore."

So far participants are enthusiastic. Stephen Baker, chief executive of Suffolk Coastal and Waveney DCs, led a challenge to South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse DCs, which also share a chief executive in David Buckle.

"Peer challenge allows people to get the maximum benefit by focusing on what matters. A cornerstone is to be really open to challenge, feedback and learning," Mr Baker says.

The process is also useful for the challengers. "I found that getting up to my elbows in two other councils in the same position was very valuable," he adds.

Mr Baker was given no specific steer as to what to examine and in retrospect thinks this was unfortunate, as "we were trying to cram an awful lot in by examining everything".

On the receiving end, Mr Buckle agrees. "I regret now that I did not ask them to focus on some specific things," he says.

"I thought what we gave them was a tough ask because they were having to review two councils in four days with no steer on what to look at, so they tried to cover everything and maybe that became a bit superficial."

He says the results yielded no "oh wow" moment in their recommendations but it was useful being reviewed by "someone whose judgment you trust".

Others have given Cllr Fleming similar feedback. "The lesson so far is that the councils that get most from it are those that have a specific area they want fresh eyes on, rather than a corporate challenge," he says.

Mr Buckle led one of the few peer challenges to have generated controversy, at Hambleton and Richmondshire DCs.

The unpublished report was concluded shortly before chief executive Peter Simpson was sent on gardening leave in February by leader Neville Huxtable (Con).

Richmondshire leader John Blackie (Ind) said he had not been consulted and had been satisfied with Mr Simpson's performance. Mr Simpson eventually left in May.

"Whether what we said led to Peter Simpson's departure I can't say, but they were quite different councils and were not really synchronised in the way I'd expect," Mr Buckle says.

Gloucestershire CC chief executive Pete Bungard says the LGA has clearly chosen to use the process as "an improvement tool rather than a way to find failure".

"The LGA is where the politicians want it to be on this and they are now very reliant on the regional associates to be their eyes and ears for problems," he says.

"It would be surprising were a peer challenge to find the first indications of a failure," he adds.

Mr Bungard was involved in the Lincolnshire CC peer challenge and says it showed "often what you can say is more valuable than what you can write".

"There are things you can say leader to leader, or chief executive to chief executive, that you would not want to put in a presentation," he says.

After leading the Barnsley MBC peer challenge, Durham CC chief executive George Garlick is about to undergo a review himself.

Mr Garlick has found the process important. "It is the best learning development experience you could have.

"Barnsley was very open and collaborative, it was informal but evidence based. These are very much not inspections."

Peer challenge sees the sector at last righting its own wrongs. This does mean, however, that there is no one else to blame for oversights.