Economy, efficiency and effectiveness – that is the mantra behind the Local Government Act 1999.
The legislation, all 17,000 words of it, seeks to promote a culture of Best Value that emphasises continuous review and improvement. The aim is for the public sector to provide a better service for the people who pay for it and for whom it ultimately operates – the public.
At least that is the idea. But how can these principles be applied, for example, throughout an organisation of 3,000 people spread over 600 square miles, without tying the organisation up in counter-productive bureaucracy? That is the challenge facing the Corporate Development Unit of Hertfordshire Constabulary over the next five years and beyond. The steps we have taken to face up to it will hopefully strike a chord among some of the thousands of public-sector employees in similar situations.
Terms of reference
Any programme of change must start with a period of assessment. Before you can talk meaningfully about improving all your services, you need to know where you stand at the moment. You also need to define exactly what your services are, which is sometimes surprisingly difficult. Assessment immediately presented us with two significant logistical problems.
Accountability Best Value obliges us to consult the people who use our services. But not all these people actually live in Hertfordshire. Many of the 370,000 vehicles that use our motorways each day never actually stop in the county, for example, yet their drivers expect our roads to be safe. Consulting our service users in the broadest sense, therefore, requires a good deal of creative thinking and may involve sharing information with other authorities (a theme that will keep recurring).
Resources Assessment takes time and money. Many police officers feel they already spend quite enough of their day filling in forms. Any initiative that results in police forces spending less time tackling crime would have a dubious claim to the title Best Value.
To counter this, we are using existing information wherever possible. We are fortunate in Hertfordshire in that we already undertake plenty of consultation with the community – we can harness these existing channels with minimal extra effort.
Another solution is to build relationships with other authorities that have information relevant to our work. Truancy and youth crime, for example, are areas affecting the educational sector as well as the police.
The devil in the details
Another way of avoiding unnecessary bureaucracy is to consider what information you actually need. Major change takes place at a high level. But in the Best Value pilot studies, there was a tendency to get sidetracked with minor details. With this in mind we have made a conscious decision to focus on overall processes.
We have important questions to face. Questions such as, “Is the police helicopter a cost-effective means of cutting down crime?” and “How do we run crime desks to ensure the maximum number of officers on the street?” We are more likely to answer these if we look at wider processes than if we give all our officers an extra form to fill out for every burglary. It is possible to have too much information.
Once we have identified what it is we do, and the way we go about doing it, we can start to work on our productivity. Yet again, other organisations have a key role to play here, and not just those in the public sector. Learning how voluntary organisations and competitive blue-chip companies manage things such as their vehicle fleet or their web sites can be of enormous benefit, and such fact-finding exercises are relatively easy to set up. The private sector in particular is extremely keen to get involved in such projects – for them, it is great PR.
Don’t neglect your own people, though. With a radical and extensive programme like Best Value, their support is vital.
At the very start of the initiative, we conducted a number of seminars and presentations explaining what it is we are trying to achieve. We tried to make it clear that Best Value is not about apportioning blame or squeezing the system, it is about creating a structure of continuous improvement.
Sticks and carrots
The Best Value regime has sharp teeth. In our case, if the Audit Commission and HM Inspectorate are not happy with the progress made, they have radical powers to strip us of our responsibilities. But don’t be blind to the positive aspects of Best Value. If implemented in an intelligent and structured way, I believe it will lead to genuine service improvements and a culture of innovation.