Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Housing Benefits and the Comprehensive Performance Assessment

I'm going to introduce you to some new jargon, the 'Comprehensive Performance Assessment' (CPA). Broadly speaking its (allegedly) an overall assessment of a council's performance collated by the Audit Commission (AC). Not all individual services are directly inspected by AC but its them who get the job of pulling the whole lot together for the overall report. Once you've read this post you can afford to completely erase CPAs from your memory cos they're old hat baby, there's a new gun in town, the Comprehensive Area Assessment (before you ask I don't really know whats different but I'm sure its new and exciting and full of the stuff that gets auditors creaming their pants. I could look into it but I don't need to for this article and its probably too boring).

Housing and Council Tax benefits services were previously inspected by a body called the Benefits Fraud Inspectorate (other titles considered - Scourge of Scroungers, Witchfynder General) but this was abolished in April 2008 and benefits are now one of the services inspected by AC directly. However the most recent CPA published drew on the 2007 inspection by BFI. In this assessment, Nottingham City Council's benefits service scored 4, the highest rating.

So, NCC's benefits services are brilliant then? Well, they are better than they were but if we take a look underneath the hood its not quite so rosy.

I contacted the AC and they sent me details of the methodology behind the 2008 CPA and they confirmed that this was broadly the same as that used by the BFI in 2007. Scroll down to page 17 for the stuff on the detailed benefits assessment.

One thing thats immediately clear is that two of my pet issues, the illegal decision notices and the huge underspend of the Discretionary Housing Payment budget play no part in the assessment. To be fair, I'm not surprised that the former doesn't make it in, its not easy to see how such an issue could be easily assessed in audit terms and as decision letters are usually standard templates from a specialist software package AC could be forgiven for assuming that getting them legally correct is a given. However, I find it pretty alarming that DHPs are completely ignored.

Another thing that is apparent from the document is that different 'performance measures' are given different weightings in percentage terms in the overall assessment of the service.

Lets have a look at two of them which I don't think would be controversial to describe as 'very important'. One, the average speed of processing new claims deserves a 15% weighting in the assessment, while the percentage of claims that are calculated correctly is only worth 6%.

WTF? Why so different? Don't get me wrong, speed of processing is important but so is accuracy. More worryingly, as there is a bit of a conflict between the two (the age old quantity v quality battle), giving one a much higher weighting might tempt managers to throw all their resources at one at the expense of the other in order to get a better inspection score.

But this is Nottingham City Council, they've got a 4 star assessment, the best there is, surely they wouldn't be that cynical? A quick look at the figures should clear this up....oh.

The performance figures are available on the Department of Work and Pensions website (this is an MS Excel file so if you haven't got Excel you can get a free viewer here). Scroll down a bit to find the Government Office East Midlands bit, Nottingham's at row 120.

Nottingham's average claim processing time for 2007/8 was 28 days, enough to get it a rating of 4 (the highest) for this performance measure which, lets remind ourselves is weighted at 15% of the overall assessment. Trebles all round for that. Now, scroll across for the performance measure for claims calculated correctly and Nottingham achieved 93% which gives it a big fat 1 (the lowest). Look at the other councils and this is in fact the worst score for accuracy in the whole of the East Midlands. Still, never mind eh, that one's only worth 6% of the overall rating so fucking up on that doesn't matter too much. Can you see where this is going?

So, to summarise, NCC has allowed itself to continue issuing illegal decision notices for over 9 months and has comprehensively mismanaged the Discretionary Housing Payment scheme every year since its inception. Neither of these affect its CPA score. It has also, I think its fair to infer, thrown resources at a performance measure that has a very large effect on its CPA score while allowing another (low weighted) measure to fall so low that it is the worst scoring in the whole region. This is tick box management at its worst.

The Audit Commission are due to release the report for the 2008 CPA for NCC this month and, although they have taken over the inspection the methodology remains the same. They tell me that a new approach is due for the 2009 inspection which will appear next year (summarised here for those who are still awake).

So we can look forward to another round of nauseatingly self congratulatory press releases about our 'excellent' benefits service any day now probably (especially after the bigging up of NCH's not outstanding 2 star assessment recently). Unfortunately, what we probably can't look forward to is your benefit being calculated correctly, claimants being told that they can appeal against the incorrect assessment or for their Discretionary Housing Payments claim being administered properly. Keep an eye on those eviction rates.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Eviction rates (posted on Indymedia) are

that's 42%


42% 42% 42% 42% 42% 42% 42% 42% 42