Elect the inspectors

The "inspectocracy" isn't working. Inspectors must be accountable to local people, not ministers
July 31, 2007

Britain's "inspectocracy" has grown remorselessly under governments of both parties in recent years. Ignoring the minor players, like the benefits fraud inspectorate, we have Ofsted for schools and nurseries, the commission for social care inspection, the healthcare commission, Her Majesty's inspectors of constabulary, prisons and probation, and then you have the far-reaching audit commission. Public service organisations aren't disciplined by markets (and pretend markets in public services are not a real substitute). Forcing public organisations to measure, monitor and publish their performance has revealed some chronic weaknesses and some huge variations in standards between similar areas. To that extent, the inspection culture has brought real benefits.

But the inspectocracy's limits are becoming clear. I awoke one recent morning to hear that the healthcare commission was reporting that a quarter of NHS hospitals had not done enough to tackle MRSA. As a patient, I wondered what those hospitals would now do. As a politician I wondered how I should respond. As your local MP, I could send a sharp letter to the local health trust, but I can't make anything happen, and no one will criticise me if I don't—with whom, then, does the responsibility lie? Perhaps someone else you voted for? It's certainly not the council's fault. You may have voted for them too, but they don't run the health service. Technically, of course, the hospital trust's board should respond, but they are appointees, every one. Good and diligent people, of course, but only under extreme circumstances will they get sacked for poor performance. And if it's a private hospital under contract to the NHS, God knows who should act.

So if nothing happens, you've got two choices: travel to another hospital when you are ill, or complain to the minister, who will undoubtedly decline to become involved in "local decisions." Look across the public services, and it's hard to see who you are meant to hold to account.

The idea was that inspection would deliver consistency whoever provides the service. But the growing inspectocracy does not distinguish between unelected bodies, elected bodies or those that are ultimately accountable to elected ministers. And the political costs of this are rising. Even necessary health reorganisations face bitter opposition from a public that feels excluded from any influence and suspicious of the motives of NHS bureaucrats. Weary chief constables recently told the home affairs select committee that they were regularly inspected by seven bodies, including Her Majesty's inspectors, the audit commission and the health and safety executive. Despite this, police performance has not improved in line with vastly increased resources. In short, the combination of inspectors and Whitehall ministers is incapable of producing a system with at least some degree of accountability. At a time of rising aspirations and finite resources, where difficult choices have to be made, this cannot be satisfactory.

"New localism" is the fashionable, cross-party response to overcentralised decision-making. Everyone wants to devolve more power to local government and local communities. But of course, none of this will make any difference so long as public service managers are more in thrall to the inspectocracy than they are to any local influence or democracy. Even in your council's services, where elected councillors might think they should be in charge, it is the inspection regime—and its targets and standards—that really matters. The treasury's recent pledge to reduce the number of targets is a positive sign—but even this is not enough.

We need to marry the inspectocracy with democracy. So, let's elect the people who are meant to respond to the inspectors' reports. Let's give people we choose the power to decide what the targets and standards should be. And the power to intervene and require a response, to dirty hospitals or coasting schools. Where there are choices to be made between different priorities, and where there is a debate about the standards to be set, let's elect the people we want to make them.

We don't need new elected bodies for this job. Our local councils already have the power to scrutinise local services, and not just the ones they run or commission. Local authority overview and scrutiny committees were established a few years back and operate something like select committees in parliament. But like parliamentary select committees, they lack power to intervene and demand action. We should put these councils and committees at the centre of local democracy, with power to make a real difference to the NHS, the police service and the services commissioned by or provided for the council itself. Local elections could then be run again on the basis of the priorities political parties want to set for local services and their record of making a difference. The inspectors would still inspect, but working now for the people who use the services rather than ministers.