We aim to map the various elements that provide assurance of the performance of local government and to demonstrate how they all fit together. We hope that this framework will be useful both for councils and the public.
Councils are responsible for their own performance and improvement. This is recognised in the ‘sector-led improvement’ approach which is underpinned by the key principles that councils:
- are accountable locally, not nationally
- have a sense of collective responsibility for the performance of the local government sector.
Sector-led improvement has always played a part in providing local authorities with assurance of their own performance. Increasingly, it is contributing to the assurance of councils' performance for the wider public and central government.
We provide councils with essential tools and resources to respond to opportunities, address complex challenges and facilitate continuous improvement. We also maintain an overview of the performance of the sector.
Our data benchmarking platform – LG Inform – is freely available to all and enables any council’s performance to be compared with any other council or group of councils. Corporate peer challenge reports are all published: we have made this work more robust by requiring councils to produce action plans, with a progress review in the following 12 months. On a daily basis, sector-led support shines a light on issues such as governance, financial planning or performance, enabling councils to take early action before those issues become more serious.
Assurance and accountability in local government
There are many opportunities for councils to be held to account and these can contribute to trust in the decision-making process. Councils conduct their business in the most open and transparent way of all public authorities. Decisions are based on openly available written advice, and an overwhelming majority of decisions made in the public interest are made in open public meetings.
The structures that reinforce this accountability include:
- free and fair elections for councillors responsible for making public decisions
- independent external audit
- independent regulation of service standards and practice
- opportunities for individuals and their advocates to complain and seek remedy and redress for service and ethical failures.
All councils have internal controls, challenges and practices in place to ensure that they adhere to good governance principles. These include:
- councillor scrutiny
- audit and risk controls
- the publication of annual governance statements
- everyday actions taken by officers who have statutory roles for financial matters
- propriety in decision-making
- responsibility for management arrangements.
Additionally, councils challenge and support each other to continuously improve, supported by our improvement programmes and resources.
Councils exist to improve the quality of life of, and the quality of places for, the communities they serve. Therefore, the focus of councils’ assurance work is on the assurance they provide to local communities.
Mapping the improvement and assurance framework for local government
Currently, there is no document or framework which sets out, in one place, the various required elements of council assurance and how they all fit together. We believe that mapping such a framework would be useful – both for councils and the public.
The aim of this work is to:
- describe the assurance framework for the local government sector which currently exists but is not yet written down
- improve understanding of how the various elements of assurance work together
- increase clarity and transparency
- support improvement of practice
- consider whether any of the current checks and balances could be simplified, improved or enhanced to provide greater assurance for the sector
- consider if any further action is required to ensure that support and assurance for those requiring a higher level of assurance are used suitably and in the timeliest way possible.
Since the scope and objectives of the local government sector are so wide-ranging, we have mainly focused on corporate, rather than service-specific sources of assurance and the elements which provide essential assurance in all councils. Effective corporate assurance will support assurance of individual services. Each council will additionally identify their own local objectives, for which they are accountable to their local electorate.
What have we done already?
We have held discussions with members of the local government sector, representatives of professional associations, and others and have engaged with the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
Our work has been informed by a sounding board including representatives from Solace, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) and Lawyers in Local Government (LLG).
The feedback we received has helped us to:
- revise our draft definitions of assurance and accountability for the local government context
- revise our initial draft map of the elements of the assurance and accountability framework for local government
- identify common themes related to the operation of assurance and accountability in local government, with related principles and good practice
- develop and adapt our improvement support offers.
What do we mean by assurance and accountability?
Assurance is information, evidence and evaluation of how local authorities are delivering their duties, functions and outcomes, which can be used to hold them to account and may give confidence.
There should be no assumption that assurance will always be gained – in some cases the outcome will be ‘not assured’.
How does accountability work?
There are multiple elements of accountability in local government for example:
- councillors to their constituents
- the executive to the overview and scrutiny function
- the executive and the organisation to the audit committee
- officers to the council (through line management)
- specific statutory officers to the full council (through reporting responsibilities)
- officers to their professional bodies in relation to professional standards and conduct (where applicable)
- the council for its stewardship of public resources (through external audit)
- the council to ombudsmen / inspectors / regulators
- the council to Government departments (through grant funding arrangements)
- the council to parliamentary select committees (as and when required)
- the council to the courts/ redress schemes
- the council to wider partnerships, bodies and authorities.
Draft principles of assurance and accountability
The draft principles of assurance and accountability are:
- clarity – who is accountable for what?
- a whole-council approach
- a culture of assurance and accountability
- monitoring against standards / benchmarks / local targets
- data quality / credibility of information
- transparency / public accessibility / intelligibility of information.
What does ‘good’ look like?
Good practice in local government assurance includes:
- visible collective ownership and leadership of good governance at senior political and managerial levels
- everyone – including wider stakeholders – understands their contribution to assurance
- a learning organisation: self-awareness, open to challenge
- assurance as a constant management process, not a one-off event
- assurance activity increases as risk increases
- assurance supports achievement of priority outcomes
- good communication with the public on performance and how they can contribute to holding the council to account
- regional / sub-regional / national oversight, challenge and support.
Current components of improvement and assurance
Find out more about the components of improvement and assurance currently in place across the local government sector in our online publication Improvement and assurance framework for local government – components.
What are we doing now?
We are seeking the views of the sector on the principles of accountability, examples of good practice and revised diagrams of the elements of the improvement and assurance framework which appear below.
Until the end of February 2024, we are seeking the views of the sector through meetings with:
- councils at local and regional levels
- representatives of relevant professional bodies
- other relevant stakeholders
- our consultation on a draft improvement and assurance framework for local government.
We will then publish a revised version, with accompanying notes, good practice examples and links to other relevant guidance.
Tell us what you think
We want to hear your views about the revised draft framework, its principles and examples of good practice set out above, and how it could be improved.