Flood of information may prove deceptive: A wide range of performance indicators, published by the Audit Commission as part of the Citizen's Charter, is intended to aid local democracy

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The Independent Online
BY DECEMBER 1994 voters will have been deluged with a wealth of information about every aspect of local services, the Audit Commission promised yesterday.

Their local authorities, police and fire services will have answered in advertisements in local papers 152 questions which aim to reveal how efficiently taxpayers' money has been spent.

The Government-appointed commission will then step in, collect all the information and produce a gigantic volume of national league tables which will allow electors to go a step further and compare their council's performance in all the 152 areas against that of other councils.

The statistics in this volume will cover issues such as how much each council spends per head on education, as well as more parochial concerns such as how many 'dog's mess disposal points' each council provides.

At first glance it seems everything an elector could want to know will be made available. The cost per head of services, speed at which complaints are dealt with and dozens of other figures in councils' computers will be used to provide easily understandable information. But local authority leaders said yesterday that the appearance of openness was deceptive and the national indicators ignored the need for councils to respond to local priorities rather than Whitehall's agenda.

Labour councillors in the Association of Metropolitan Authorities said that too many of the indicators were crude and simplistic measures of the cost of services rather than their quality.

'Councils should have been able to set their own indicators and then be judged on them by their own electorates,' it said. 'The Audit Commission has been given an impossible task. National indicators cannot measure quality at local level.'

The Conservative-controlled Association of District Councils was slightly more positive. But it too was concerned that national league tables that compared sprawling, sparsely populated country authorities with small metropolitan boroughs could 'distort more than they revealed'.

David Cooksey, the commission's chairman, denied the initiative was an attack on local democracy. The provision of the information would enhance 'voters' ability to chose'.

But the commission itself has acknowledged that there are genuine doubts about the value of its measurements. In a draft version of its proposals it said it was 'conscious that the performance indicators listed here provide a generally unsatisfactory measure of the quality or effectiveness of services'. The sentence was cut from the final version of the report.

In private, some people working for the commission added that they did not believe the exercise would provide the clear information ministers wanted to give.

'Councils are going to want to look good so they'll manipulate the figures,' said one. 'It will be easy because the definitions are vague. For example, councils will be asked to give figures on the numbers of pot holes in their area. Well, what is a pot hole?'

Council leaders said they were more concerned about being manipulated by the commission into pursuing expensive and unnecessary policies. Margaret Hodge, the Labour vice-chairman of the AMA, said that no ruling group on the council would want to be criticised for performing badly in the league tables.

'Fear of bad PR will bounce authorities into abandoning sensible initiatives,' she said.

Ms Hodge quoted the case of a council whose elderly residents had said they would rather be given a deep freeze and a microwave than have their food delivered every day by home helps.

'If the authority responds to what people want and cuts down on home helps it will look terrible in the league table which merely asks how many home helps there are per thousand of population,' she said. 'It could be tempted to abandon its policy and hire more home helps simply for the sake of appearances.'

The indicators will appear at a time of turmoil in local government. The council tax will have just come in and authorities will have begun to take on the gigantic task of running community care for the elderly and disabled.

Rita Hale, an independent local government consultant, who broadly welcomed the free access to information the initiative would bring, warned that the 'very expensive' community care proposals would mean that councils would perform badly in the league tables covering education, housing and all the other services.

'Community care will mean that councils will have to concentrate resources on social services,' she said. 'Given the recession and the political need to keep the council tax low, it is very unlikely that the Government will be able to help them out with extra money.'

The Audit Commission yesterday rejected much of the criticism. The indicators were a compromise between drowning voters with information and simplifying to the point of absurdity, it said.

'In the past, citizens have usually been told by the local authority that spending more money on a service means a better service,' Mr Cooksey said. 'Once citizens have clear information about the quality and cost of each service, they will be able to judge whether the council is giving real value for money.'

(Photograph omitted)