15 January 2008

How soft my posts on the shortcomings of Cornwall county council seem now that the Improvement and Development Agency (IDEA) has reported on it.

The report is here and is disturbing. Its ominous opening sentence is: “Cornwall county council is faced with a significant number of serious problems.” The report also says that the council has a “low level of self-awareness” and is unaware or in denial about the challenges it faces. That’s polite talk for they’re losing and don’t know it.

The county council, which becomes a unitary council in 2009, faces an Audit Commission comprehensive performance assessment in May/June this year and asked the IDEA to do in effect a dry run.

The main observations of the report are that collectively the county council falls short in corporate performance, that is the various parts of it do not work together as a corporate whole as well as they should; that its performance in several spheres has declined; and the obvious point that the council’s reputation depends upon its delivering its promises in its unitary proposals.

Not everything is poor, some people’s work and understanding of what needs to happen is noted very favourably.

Some of the harsh comments are:

+ The council faces service failure if it does not improve its corporate performance.

+ The council should better communicate to the people of Cornwall what the council stands for, what its overarching purpose and vision are: “there is a general perception that the council is invisible outside of county hall.”

+ The council’s ratings for services from external assessments have “slipped downwards” and the external overall assessments of the capacity to improve are too low. These are singled out: the Direction of Travel judgement of December 2006 said the council was “not improving adequately”; the judgement for children’s social care was “not improving adequately”; the council’s score for Use of Resources fell from 3 to 2 stars; and both the recent inspection reports for Supporting People in 2006 and Older People in 2007 gave only one star.

+ On the move towards a unitary council the county’s partners “are unclear about the plans and who is involved in managing the change.”

+ “Collectively there is an absence of a strong performance culture at corporate level, with the status quo being the preferred option.”

+ The council’s self-assessment suggests that it is unaware or in denial of the problems it faces

And on and on and on…

It is dismaying reading, a detailed catalogue of failure or poor performance or weaknesses over many areas with change and those keen for it stymied. I read it as a forecast that unless there is a sea change the county council will move from failure to disaster. The parrot is not dead yet but is looking very pale.

Although the report does not say so, I think it shows the ruling Liberal Democrats as a party that is letting down the people of Cornwall in county government. Let us hope that things can only get better, as they sing. The report was made in summer 2007 so perhaps since then the council is out of the slough and marching to the sunlit uplands and the delectable mountains as we speak and come the spring the Audit Commission assessment will be glowing. Yes, I hope so.

Oh, there’s one amusing comment. The council should “listen and be seen to be listening to local stakeholders.” I’m not sure what a stakeholder is; does it include members of the public in Cornwall, those people whose views the council chose not to notice in the unitary debate? Probably not.