Oxford City Council: delivering ‘Value for Money’?

by Stephen Tall on October 15, 2005

I don’t tend to write much on this site about my work on Oxford City Council’s Finance Scrutiny Committee (which I chair). There’s a simple reason: a lot of it is quite detailed analysis of how well – or not – different parts of the Council’s services are performing, and not easily translated into a 450-word story. So bless the Oxford Mail for deciding that the committee’s investigation of whether the City Council is achieving ‘Value for Money’ is worthy of coverage. They’re right, but it would be easy to dismiss as a bit dull (as I have previously done).

‘Value for Money’ is a vogue term, unsurprisingly perhaps, as it is one of the few bits of Council finance jargon which is pretty easily comprehensible. Most of us are quite accustomed to dealing with ‘Value for Money’ in our day-to-day lives. We are very well aware that, as consumers, we make many trade-offs according to our financial circumstances.

For example, you may prefer Tesco’s ‘Finest’ range of fresh bread; but be happy enough to settle for a loaf of Warburton’s. Or, even if you can afford the ‘Finest’, you may still prefer to stick with the cheaper option, and spend the difference on a packet of Polo mints.

Similarly, the City Council has to make spending decisions based on using its finite resources to achieve the best aggregate result for council tax-payers. But whereas, as consumers, we know well our own preferences, and can justify our spending decisions with reference to our personal priorities, the Council is not in that happy position. Not because Oxford’s political parties don’t know our priorities – they’re in our manifestos – but because we don’t necessarily know what can be afforded.

Overall, Oxford City Council is a high-spending authority delivering poor quality services. That bald statement hides a great deal of variation. Some parts of the Council are doing great work at low cost. But there are parts where performance is patchy, and which cost a hell of a lot compared to other councils. And it is in these parts there needs to be a ‘pincer movement’, cutting costs and driving up performance. Or, alternatively, the Council needs to decide to stop delivering these poor quality services, and focus on delivering those at which it is good.

As you can see, I’m being (deliberately) vague about which services I have in mind. That is not in order to save blushes, but because the City Council has been pretty sloppy in not asking itself these tough questions for far too long – which means councillors, from across the parties, have no empirical evidence on which to base our verdicts.

Which is why the Finance Scrutiny Committee has set itself the challenge of getting answers to these questions.