A Best Value authority must make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness (LGA 1999, section 3).
The first details of Best Value were set out in the ’Twelve Principles of Best Value’ announced in June 1997 (DoE 1997). The bill to provide the statutory framework was introduced in the 1998/9 parliamentary session.
In the period between announcement and introduction (May 1997 and April 2000) the Government sponsored 37 voluntary council ‘pilots’, 22 of which contained a housing element. The purpose of the pilots was to “test elements of the best value framework, and assess the extent to which actual improvements in service quality and efficiency have flowed from the new approach” (DETR 1997a). The rationale for the introduction of Best Value was summarised as follows:
Under Compulsory Competitive Tendering service quality has often been neglected and efficiency gains have been uneven and uncertain, and it has proved inflexible in practice. There have been significant costs for employees, often leading to high staff turnover and the demoralisation of those expected to provide quality services. Compulsion has also bred antagonism, so that neither local authorities nor private sector suppliers have been able to realise the benefits that flow from a healthy partnership. All too often the process of competition has become an end in itself, distracting attention from the services that are actually provided to local people. CCT will therefore be abolished (DETR 1998, s.1.5).
Thus, the rationale for Best Value emphasised three points: the failure of Compulsory Competitive Tendering; the importance of partnership in service provision; and the adverse effect of competition as a prime objective.
Under the leadership of John Major the Conservative government pursued Compulsory Competitive Tendering almost as a dogma, often against the wishes of local government. This led to an uncomfortable stand-off between the two, with CCT regulations being produced in increasing detail, and sometimes extending further than would have been the case in the private sector. The government was unambiguous about what was required – issue of tender, receipt of tender, selection of provider Labour’s Best Value proved more difficult to define. The notion of Best Value prior to implementation was enshrined within one key consultation document: Modernising Local Government — Improving local services through best value (DETR 1998a). This set out four defining elements of Best Value.
The first was the duty to secure economic, efficient and effective services continuously (the ‘3 Es’).
The second required service reviews within which the authority must demonstrate that in the fulfilment of their duties under Best Value they have: compared their service provision with that of other private and public providers; consulted with local business and community; considered competition in provision; and challenged the reasons for, and methods of, provision (the ‘4 Cs’).
The third defining element introduced a regime of audit and measurement of performance, with the broad expectation that, year-on-year, costs would reduce and quality would increase. Performance would be monitored locally through Best Value Performance Reviews (BVPRs), partly through adherence to locally and statutorily determined Best Value performance indicators (BVPIs), and disseminated annually through Performance Plans (BVPPs).
The fourth defining element of Best Value outlined the consequence of performance: Government intervention in cases of Best Value failure, and reward in cases of success.
In turn these four aspects of Best Value are bound by adherence to twelve principles of Best Value mentioned above. The answer to the question of what method of service delivery, precisely, the Government expected to arise from Best Value seemed to centre on local interpretation as satisfactory. The lack of clear definition, in the context of housing services, was explained as follows:
The paper does not attempt to define what best value in housing is — that is primarily a matter for individual local authorities in consultation with local people. The primary intention is to explain the process framework within which local housing authorities will need to operate in obtaining best value in housing (DETR 1999, s.1.3).
Therefore, while the message was unequivocally that Compulsory Competitive Tendering was to be withdrawn, the replacement was to be less prescribed, with the intention that local authorities follow a responsive and locally determined method of service provision within a centrally defined framework. Best Value was not, therefore, about what local authorities should do: it was a framework that prescribed how they should decide what to do.
Specifically Best Value would differ from Compulsory Competitive Tendering in three respects: organisation performance, organisation process, and the relationship between process and performance (Boyne 1999, p.2).
There are currently 90 BVPI’s, which cover many, but not all aspects of services provided by local councils.
In order to get a balanced view of performance the BVPI’s cover four dimensions of performance:
Each year Government Departments work with each other to set indicators for the next year. BVPI’s are set in line with the financial year (1 April to 31 March).
Many of the BVPI’s have been in effect since the start of Best Value in April 2000, but some new indicators have been set, and some existing indicators were revised either to improve their definition or to be aligned with Central Government policy. Where a BVPI has a target attached to it, these targets are reviewed each year, in light of the most recent performance data provide by a local council.
As far as possible the Government has tried to limit the number of changes. In fact, there were no amendments of additions to the BVPI set last year, and Government has agreed to make no amendments to the present BVPIs until 2008/09.
Where a council fails to meet a statutory target, the Secretary of State is at liberty to take action, particularly where an authority is not meeting its duty of continuous improvement. In practice, the Secretary of State can direct the Council to take specific action to secure improvement, or, in extreme cases, remove the function(s) concerned from its control altogether.
Department of the Environment (1997) The Principles of Best Value London: DoE.
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1997a) Criteria for project selection London: DETR
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1998) Improving local services through best value: Consultation Paper London, DETR
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1998a) Modernising local government: Improving local services through best value London: DETR
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1999) Best Value in Housing Framework Consultation Paper London: DETR
LGA 1999 Local Government Act 1999 available at: http://www.opsi.gov.uk/ACTS/acts1999/19990027.htm
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