Best value audit

Best Value

We last underwent a Best Value Review by Audit Scotland in 2019 with the final report published in January 2020. Visit the Audit Scotland website to view The Highland Council Best Value Assurance Report (BVAR). The BVAR reflects on the past 10 years of the Council, the period since the last Best Value review in 2009/10.

Accounts Commission Findings

The findings should be considered in the context of the recommendations outlined below. The Commission’s findings are:

  • ‘The Commission accepts the Controller of Audit’s report on Best Value in Highland Council. We endorse the recommendations set out by the Controller of Audit in his report and expect the council to act upon them and demonstrate improvement in the next 12 months.’
  • ‘We are disappointed with the progress made by the council since our previous Best Value audit in 2010.’
  • ‘We are concerned in particular that the council is not demonstrating that it is financially sustainable. In recent years the council has a poor record of meeting budget gaps, and thus it is critical that it meets a forecast budget gap of up to £77.3 million in the two years from 2020/21. Recent improvements in financial governance and controls will be vital in delivering this requirement.’
  • ‘We note with concern the Controller’s conclusion that the council is not demonstrating all aspects of Best Value, but we acknowledge that there has been an increase in the pace of the change required to do this. We underline that the council needs to get better at its self-evaluation to be clearer about how it can improve. It is disappointing for example to note poor service performance, not least in the priority area of education.’
  • ‘Difficult decisions lie ahead for the council, requiring effective leadership. We therefore urge elected members to continue to work constructively together with officers and communities. Recent changes to decision-making and scrutiny structures will be integral to this, as will members making use of better-quality performance information to fulfil their responsibilities.’
  • ‘We note recent and ongoing changes to senior officer team and structure and we encourage the collaborative leadership required with members to maintain an increasing pace of change. The ownership and involvement of all staff in continuous improvement is another vital element in moving forward.’
  • ‘The Commission acknowledges the significant challenges of the geography and diversity of the Highlands. Given this context, we urge better progress by the council to work with its partners in delivering their community empowerment and locality planning obligations.’
  • ‘The nature of the Controller’s recommendations are significant and it is vital that the council takes these forward to deliver Best Value. The Commission will therefore maintain a close interest in how the council moves forward. We ask the Controller of Audit to monitor this through the annual audit and keep the Commission informed accordingly.’

There are seven recommendations:

  1. ‘The council needs to seek to ensure that all staff are fully engaged in the transformation programme and that budget holders are clear on expectations to deliver the planned savings set out in ongoing transformation work. The council should continue to develop and implement a longer-term delivery model which is affordable and achievable.’
  2. ‘The council should increase the use of family grouping data, benchmarking and targets to enhance performance reporting’ (paragraphs 36–43, Appendix 1).
  3. ‘The council’s approach to performance management can be further improved through sharing of practices between services and council teams in order to fully embrace and support effective self-assessment and a culture of continuous improvement.’
  4. ‘Once the council has implemented the revised governance arrangements, it should seek to monitor the effectiveness of these changes to ensure they deliver the improvements anticipated, including the intended enhanced scrutiny and decision-making.’
  5. ‘Once the new leadership team is in place, it will be key that they look to successfully manage the need for increased pace of change alongside continued engagement across officers to achieve the strategic objectives and this should be reviewed and evaluated on an ongoing basis’
  6. ‘The CPP should increase the pace in developing the remaining locality action plans in line with the requirements of the Community Empowerment Act.’
  7. ‘The council should continue to work with elected members to understand reasons for variable uptake of training and agree how this can be improved alongside a programme of ongoing elected member development. In particular, elected members’ knowledge of and involvement in the performance management process needs to be improved to enhance scrutiny and help drive improvement’

BVAR Improvement Plan

The Council agreed a detailed improvement plan along with outlining existing actions being taken on 12 March 2020. The report and improvement plan can be accessed here.

Best Value

All local authorities have a duty of Best Value. The key requirement of this duty is to deliver continuous improvement in everything we do, whilst keeping an appropriate balance between quality and cost. This means that we must have the management arrangements in place to deliver this continuous improvement. These arrangements mean:

  • Understanding how we are performing
  • Planning to improve
  • Delivering the improvements

Understanding how we are performing

Understanding performance is about having the information available to understand where we can improve what we do. We need to get this information from a number of sources. The information below illustrates activities across the whole council.

  • What citizens and customers think - a comprehensive public performance survey each year. In addition, more targeted surveys are carried out on specific user groups or issues.
  • How well we use our resources - information on budgets, performance of technology, and the use of our property and how we manage information.
  • How well we manage - self-assessment exercises with the senior management team against good practice.
  • How do we compare with other providers - data on a comprehensive range of performance issues (these are required by the Scottish Government).
  • Do we meet the required standards - there are national required standards for service provision, for example education, social work and housing.

Planning to improve

We have a range of strategic plans covering our activities with other public sector agencies, the whole council, services and specific service delivery units.

  • Local Outcome Improvement Plan - The purpose of the Local Outcome Improvement Plan is to identify areas for improvement and to deliver better outcomes for the people of the Highlands and Scotland, through specific commitments made by the Council, its community planning partners and the Scottish Government. The plan focuses on agreed priorities for all partners that look at tackling inequality and prevention. The document sets out the joint commitments made by the Highland Community Planning Partnership and the Scottish Government to an agreed set of outcomes. A range of outcomes have been agreed by the Community Planning Partnership based on the needs and issues identified through consultation with our communities and linking to the Scottish Governments National Outcomes.
  • Council Programme - The Council Programme outlines the aims of our political administration. The aims will be achieved through the delivery of a Programme of priorities that informs our strategic planning at all levels through the Performance Plan and Service Plans.
  • Performance Plan (Previously Corporate Plan) - This shows how we will deliver the Council Programme and our strategic operational priorities through a series of key performance indicators and improvement targets to demonstrate how we will know we are achieving our priorities. So alongside our commitments from our Programme we set out a performance framework of key performance indicators alongside information on our budget.
  • Service Plans - Each Service’s strategic plan shaped by service performance and the Performance Plan.
  • Operational Plans -The more detailed plans showing specifically what will be done to deliver the strategic plans.

Delivering the improvements

We aim to continuously improve what we do. It is important that we monitor and evaluate our progress on an ongoing basis to check we are delivering against our own and citizen’s expectations. Monitoring delivery is done through:

  • Elected members scrutinising plans and monitoring progress corporately and by service
  • Senior Management implementing plans
  • Reporting to the public (through the public performance report) on how well we are doing
  • Audit Scotland carrying out a comprehensive audit of the way we manage
  • Various inspectorates measuring the way we manage improvement

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