As easy as falling off a [Of] Log? – What the new regime will mean for Local Authorities
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) announced on 4 July 2023 that it is establishing the Office for Local Government (Oflog).
To support the creation of Oflog, DLUHC issued new draft guidance on the “Best Value” Duty and opened consultation on what indicators should be prioritised in informing engagement with local authorities to ascertain compliance with the Best Value Duty and what quantifiable metrics would be appropriate to consider.This briefing note is solely focussed on the creation of Oflog rather than the draft Best Value Duty guidance.
What is Oflog?
Lord (Amyas) Morse, the former comptroller and auditor general of the National Audit Office (NAO), has been confirmed as the first chair of Oflog. However, Oflog is not a separate statutory body nor is it a non-departmental public body as it currently functions an office within DLUHC. DLUHC has described Oflog as being a new “performance body” focused on local government in England, which will provide “authoritative and accessible data and analysis about the performance of local government, and support its improvement”.
Is Oflog a reincarnation of the Audit Commission?
Readers may be aware that Audit Commission was abolished on 31 March 2015, 30 years after it was established. Several of the Audit Commission’s functions continued under a new local audit framework.
So why the need for Oflog? Whilst there have been a number of local authorities in the news recently for poor financial management and statutory interventions, for some years now Government has recognised that some of the Audit Commission’s former functions needed to be replicated through a new local government data collation and analysis body.
It is worth remembering that over the course of the Audit Commission’s existence, its remit expanded considerably by introducing Comprehensive Performance Assessments (CPAs) and thereafter Comprehensive Area Assessments (CAAs). CAA’s were intended to be an initiative which aimed to provide information on the performance of all public services in a local area. The Audit Commission’s expanded remit became controversial, which affected its relationship with local government as many local authorities felt that this was an overreach of central government power which undermined the democratic legitimacy of local authorities. These assessments were seen as an unnecessary burden that sapped council resource.
Will the creation of Oflog mean that local authorities will be audited by it?
In its policy paper on Oflog, the Government states that: “Oflog will not set targets or conduct burdensome area assessments – this is not about re-creating the Audit Commission. The Audit Commission was regulating, micromanaging, and inspecting local councils forcing them to spend time ticking boxes and filling in forms rather than getting on with the business of local government. In doing so it was hindering local transparency and scrutiny. Local government already works within a framework of statutory powers and responsibilities. Oflog will not add new responsibilities onto local government or seek to establish an expensive compliance regime, thereby safeguarding the principle of democratic accountability.”
This is no doubt very reassuring for local authorities but time will tell how Oflog will adapt in fulfilling its vision. If councils perceive Oflog as overly bearing or prescriptive in assessing their performance, they could be disinclined to engage with Oflog’s wider efforts to improve local data comparability – to the detriment of both parties
How effective will Oflog be in its mission?
There have been a number of recent well-publicised comments about the varying performance levels of Local Authorities on a range of issues, concerning everything from repairing potholes to speed of reviewing planning applications. The vision for Oflog is for it to provide authoritative and accessible data and analysis about the performance of local government, and support its improvement. Oflog aims to improve the transparency of local government performance through the publication of carefully selected data on the new ‘Local Authority Data Explorer’. It believes that through this data and associated analysis, it will enable understanding and interpretation of local government performance by its three main target audiences: (i) citizens, (ii) local government, and (iii) central government.
In order to deliver this vision successfully it would need to develop tools that can present data flexibly to inform different stakeholders’ understanding of communities and local services. The fact that Data Explorer will be built and expanded iteratively would be good news as it avoids the trap of being focussed on a narrow range of areas as that has the potential of creating a rigid performance framework which can easily be ‘gamed’.
Oflog will need to be proactive in promoting the existence of the data and assisting citizens to interpret it if it wants to “empower citizens by enabling them to hold local leaders to account”. Oflog should also ensure that the data is useable and comparable.
Oflog is likely to evolve, and whilst it currently exists as an office within DLUHC there will be calls for it to convert to an independent public body. Unless Oflog has independence, there is a risk that councils will see it as a “creature of Whitehall” which may affect its credibility by being labelled as a body that undermines local government’s democratic legitimacy.
Whilst there was some consternation amongst some senior local authority figures that a new ‘Audit Commission’ type body is being created following the initial announcement in the Levelling Up white paper, the Government’s policy paper has provided some assurance that Oflog will work in partnership with local authorities.
By collating, analysing, and publishing existing data about the relative performance of councils, it will help councillors and the public have the information they need to scrutinise more effectively local decisions; it will ensure council leaders can compare themselves against their peers and find examples of good practice to learn from; and it will allow central government and its partners to identify where there might be challenges and a need to step in to give support, where appropriate.
Oflog should be seen as an enabler of performance improvement (ignoring the elephant in the room of financial problems) and should be welcomed by local authorities as ultimately it would help local authorities by improving the data available to inform policy making and thereby adequately meet the needs of the communities that they serve.
If you would like to discuss anything covered in this article please contact Mohammad Sajjad.
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