Comment: Crude measures for the wrong people

When we squabble about the role of government, we're often really toying with the limits of what it should and shouldn't do.

Nick Seddon
Nick Seddon

One way of looking at how the state relates to charities is to say that, if it is to use charities, it should use taxpayers' money to get them to deliver services that are within its remit, not try to control - and distort - their engagement in activities that have always been understood to be the province of civil society.

A mischievous scamp recently drew to my attention the Department of Communities and Local Government's new set of performance indicators for local government. It will reduce the number of indicators from a giddying 1,200 to 198. The rhetoric is all about devolution and reinvigorating the grass-roots of democracy. As Hazel Blears, the communities and local government secretary, says in her foreword to the government report in which the indicators feature, local authorities and their partners will look less to Whitehall for legitimacy and direction, and more to the communities they serve.

Let's see if she means it. Some indicators seem reasonable, such as assessing the percentage of "people who feel they can influence decisions in their locality". But others aren't so legitimate. For instance, isn't "participation in regular volunteering" down to citizens, not state determination? More bizarre are "perceptions of parents taking responsibility for the behaviour of their children in the area" and the "emotional health of children".

Questions blossom. Isn't it hubristic of government to assume it can control such outcomes? Presuming you can overcome the measurement issues of the more subjective indicators, what are the implications of lining kids up to check whether they're happy?

It doesn't take a soothsayer to see that service-delivery organisations are going to have to demonstrate how they help local government using its indicators. Forget the rhetoric: lines of accountability still flow upwards, not horizontally out towards communities. Performance measurement is the future. And taking the Queen's shilling could mean submitting to crude tests that measure the right things in the wrong ways for the wrong people.

- Nick Seddon is an author and journalist: 

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