The 'death of improvement': an exploration of the legacy of performance and service improvement reform in English local authorities, 1997-2017
2017-05-30T15:22:31Z (GMT) by
When Tony Blair's New Labour administration took control in 1997, it sought to establish a programme of organizational, performance, and democratic reform. Initially badged as the modernizing government programme, it was later developed in the Best Value regime for local government, which imposed a centrally-controlled performance regime on all local authorities. This was characterized by a managerialist regime of external inspections, league tables, and reliance on extensive performance management, overseen by the Audit Commission. One of the first acts of the 2010 Coalition government was to dismantle this regime, along with announcing the abolition of the Audit Commission. This research sought to examine the legacy of the 1997-2010 performance regime on six English local authority case studies, identified via a deviant case analysis. An examination of the literature developed a conceptual model of seven dimensions of reform, and the research used an exploratory approach to examine the legacy of the performance regimes through a range of qualitative interviews and focus groups. The inductive analysis of interview data found that financial austerity dominated the local government environment, and the impacts of these cuts were felt across the entire group of case studies. These savings requirements had effectively broken the expectation of continuous improvement explicit in the Best Value duty what we refer to here as the death of improvement . Authorities were reducing staffing, which resulted in the loss of expertise and skills. They were also scaling back many universal services through managed decline , and deregulation of performance regimes was stimulating divergent responses to performance management arrangements, as well as influencing the relationship between politicians and performance management, and central performance staff and departmental staff. There were challenges raised around the residual inspections, largely restricted to social care and education, and how these interacted with central performance team models. The discussion develops a three-part model of performance as a system of governance , which integrates three key areas of theoretical and empirical development: performance management frameworks, accountability, and value for money. This allows four main contributions to knowledge: The concept of public value for money , Further development of our understanding of multiple forms of accountability A new model of performance management zones that articulates different roles for performance management at points within the organization A categorisation of the main changes in reform paradigms It concludes that understanding the values underpinning public sector reforms through a range of interpretive lenses is essential to fully comprehending the impact of reforms at three levels: conceptualization, operationalization, and implementation. The legacy of Comprehensive Performance Assessment and Comprehensive Area Assessment can be seen in the increased capacity and capability of local authorities to engage with performance management, and data and evidence-driven policy making. Yet, these capabilities may not have prepared authorities sufficiently for the demands of significant budget cuts driven by the post-2010 political environment.