Ros had returned to Suffolk, leaving me her copy of Prospect Magazine to read with the suggestion that I read an article by John Kay entitled “The failure of market failure”. Now, one of the things about being a bureaucrat is that ideas are something to be mildly suspicious of. However, I like to think of myself as being moderately informed so, this evening, I pulled the magazine out of my briefcase in the IKEA restaurant at Brent Park to read over dinner.
Unfortunately, as usual, I allowed myself to be distracted, and my attention was drawn to a piece by John Denham, entitled “Elect the inspectors”, in which he suggests that the “inspectocracy” isn’t working, and that inspectors should be accountable to local people, not ministers. He’s right (up to a point), but his conclusion is a rather odd one, given that the power of inspectors is solely the creation of successive Conservative and Labour governments (John, you might recall that you share a collective responsibility for much of what has happened since 1997).
His example is that of tackling MRSA in NHS hospitals, where he notes that the responsibility body if a hospital trust is failing to meet the required standards lies with a group of appointees, unlikely to be sacked except in extremis. And this is where his argument seems to be flawed. On one hand, he says that we should elect the people who are meant to respond to the inspectors’ reports, in this instance the hospital trust board. In the next paragraph, however, he starts by saying, “We don’t need new elected bodies for this job”. I’m clearly missing something here, but he goes on to suggest that local councils should scrutinise local services, noting that they already hold the power to do so.
Apart from the seemingly obvious contradiction here, I have to say that I don’t actually agree with him. The question of who employs the inspectors is quite important, and their independence is the best way to guarantee that they provide honest data. What is actually needed instead is a clear, public statement of the criteria to be used by the inspector/inspection team, in advance of them starting work. In turn, the criteria should be based on those goals set out by the local council or other elected authority, and the results published in a manner most accessible to the community.
A good inspector will examine those elements most likely to influence an outcome, and a bad one will do just about enough to avoid trouble. However, if they are directly accountable to those whose work they are scrutinising, there will inevitable be a trend towards saying what local elected officials want to hear, rather than what they, and more importantly, the public, need to know. I look forward to having John Denham reassure me on this point, but I'm not going to hold my breath waiting…