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November 7, 2002

Inspection culture 'hitting parts of the public sector'

From: Financial Times (subscription), UK
Nov. 7, 2002

The government's excessive use of targets, performance indicators and inspection has become counter-productive in some parts of the public sector, the new chairman of the Audit Commission said yesterday.

n his first day in office, James Strachan said: "We have as many, if not the most, inspections, audits and checks and balances in our public services of any country in Europe.

"But can we actually say [that as a result] we have the best public services in Europe?" Until that was possible, he said, the balance between centralism and localism, and over the degree of inspection and audit, had constantly to be re-examined.

Mr Strachan, profoundly deaf since birth, becomes chairman of the Audit Commission from being chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People. He takes on the £80,000-a-year, three-day-a-week post after a high-flying career in the City that has also seen him appointed as a board member for Ofgem, the energy regulator.

His appointment, however, has been described by the Conservatives as "singularly inappropriate" because his partner is Baroness Blackstone, culture minister.

But Mr Strachan was at pains to underline his independence: "I have never had any party political activity in my life," he said. Nor had he donated any money to political parties. "I have a pretty good record for being independent. I think you should judge people by their actions. And if you are deaf, actions speak an awful lot louder than words."

Mr Strachan said he had come to the job from working independently in the City and, more recently, in the voluntary sector.

"I think I have been a pretty forceful campaigner, which of necessity involves campaigning against government policy where we have disagreed with it. And I am doubly determined to continue to be independent because of what has been said in the past few weeks."

Mr Strachan said he had three priority areas of work for the commission, which audits and does value-for-money work in local government, the health service, housing and the criminal justice system. The first was to show that its work was leading to a "demonstrable improvement in the public services that we scrutinise" - in other words, that the commission itself was delivering value for money.

The second was to ensure that the high-quality data the commission produced got through to ordinary citizens to help them choose and improve services locally. "If we stick with a situation where it is us over here receiving the services, and them over there providing them, we won't make real progress," he said.

The third was to ensure the commission and other regulators got the balance of inspection and audit right.

"I am by nature a deregulator," he said, "and we need to reduce some of the battery of regulation and inspection. Many people [in the public services] are clearly concerned about being swamped by performance indicators and audits and inspections.

"But what we don't want to do is suddenly swing away from too much micro-meddling . . . to no oversight at all." Getting the balance right meant extending the work the commission was doing with other regulators to prevent duplication.

"The number of inspections and requests for information coming from different bodies has reached the point where too often it can be counter-productive." It was demoralising and demotivating for staff "and we need to change that".

© Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2002.