Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, reported to parliament today that there are early indications that the New Deal for Communities programme, under the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, is helping to tackle the problems of deprived communities and, despite some difficulties that have been encountered, the programme holds potential for future success.
The thirty-nine NDC partnerships that have been established throughout England have been successful in developing plans which reflect the priorities of community residents. The NAO found that some 50,000 residents (11%) have been involved in the NDC programme, a higher level of community engagement than in international regeneration initiatives studied for the report. Significant investments are being made to address worklessness, crime, education, skills, and the physical environment, and a number of high-profile initiatives have been undertaken. Local service providers recognise the important contribution of NDC partnerships, with 41% of those surveyed saying that the partnerships were very influential in shaping their own strategies.
While there is a great deal of enthusiasm within the affected communities there are a number of risks that need to be addressed in order to ensure the future success of the NDC programme. The NAO found that NDC partnerships need to assess their community engagement efforts and identify strengths and weaknesses. They need to step up their efforts to balance consultation with delivery, to manage expectations, and to communicate their progress to residents.
The operating processes established by many NDC partnerships are not, at this stage, sufficiently robust. Action needs to be taken to strengthen basic processes related to governance, financial reporting, and project appraisal criteria. A lack of basic financial and performance reporting data hinders NDC partnerships’ ability to demonstrate effective delivery and performance, to monitor their own performance, and to draw comparisons and learn from each other. It also makes the tasks of the bodies accountable for NDC partnerships (usually local authorities) and government offices more difficult. Poorer operating processes have also led to project delays and the disengagement of potential partners.
NDC partnerships have a mixed record in working constructively with service delivery agencies, primarily local and national government departments. NDC partnerships and mainstream bodies need to be more active in seeking opportunities to work with each other to achieve sustainable solutions to the problems facing deprived communities.
In many cases there are tensions between NDC partnerships and their accountable bodies, usually the local authority. The lack of clarity surrounding the role of accountable bodies has resulted in a wide variety of approaches. Where accountable bodies are too hands-off, or where they engage in micro-management, positive relationships are more difficult to build and the risks to long-term success are increased. ODPM needs to work towards clarifying the role of accountable bodies, with an emphasis on the risk-management role they can play.