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Improving local government performance through peer challenge

Shaping peer-led approaches to improve local government performance in England and Wales.

Cardiff University research into the implementation of peer challenge in English local councils has contributed to improved outcomes for councils across the country and significant financial savings.

Peer challenge is a method for securing self-driven and sustainable improvement in local public services, especially local government. In peer challenge, a team of peers (senior managers and local politicians) visit a council for several days to assess several core components which are critical to local authority performance. This process is designed to support councils to take responsibility for their own improvement.

Cardiff University’s research provided the only independent assessment of the Local Government Association’s peer challenge process for assessing council performance, providing underpinning research which contributed to the UK Government’s continued support of the process.

Assessing the effectiveness of peer challenge

Over a series of three phases, the researchers conducted evaluations to assess the effectiveness, impact, and value for money of peer challenge.

The initial phase (2012) involved analysis of the first wave of peer challenges in councils in England to determine whether the method was fit for purpose and meeting councils’ needs.

Researchers conducted surveys, analysis and interviews with political leaders and senior managers from more than 50 organisations.

The report found that the approach was working well, but made a series of recommendations for changes, including ways to increase the level of take-up across councils in England.

During the second phase (2013-2014), the researchers assessed the effectiveness of the process and identified positive impacts in five key areas:

  • Greater self-awareness by councils
  • Improved external reputation
  • Behaviour change within councils
  • Organisational change
  • Service transformation
Young businesswoman in office having speech and presentation with flip chart

The report outlined further ideas to improve the process and recommended that peer challenge should continue to be funded by the UK Government.

The third phase (2016-17) examined the effectiveness, impact, and value for money of the programme in helping councils with performance improvement and financial planning.

It found peer challenge to offer very good value-for-money compared to the previous system of external inspection. Thirty recommendations were put forward to enhance the process, including developing the information provided to peer review teams before the visit and widening the composition of the team to include representatives from beyond the local government sector.

Improved outcomes and significant cost savings for UK councils

The UK Government’s previous system of external inspection, which cost £2B a year, was expensive and increasingly regarded as burdensome. Peer challenge’s alternative approach of sector-led self-improvement is significantly less expensive, costing just £20M in 2018/19.

Peer challenge is now a key component of the UK Government’s policies for regulating government and has become the main method by which councils’ performance is assessed. More than three quarters of English councils have now adopted peer challenge, producing positive results in improved performance and providing significant cost savings.

While the research was designed to shape policy in England, it has directly informed Welsh Government’s introduction of a new performance and governance regime.

Cardiff University’s research into peer challenge has shaped the ways in which it has become a highly effective and trusted tool and, in doing so, built the ongoing capacity and capability of the local government sector to improve.

Meet the team

Key contacts

Downe, J., and Martin, S. (2012) Evaluation of the Effectiveness of the Local Government Association’s Peer Challenge Programme, Local Government Association: London. PDF

Downe, J., Martin, S., and Doering, H. (2014) Supporting Councils to Succeed: Independent Evaluation of the LGA’s Corporate Peer Challenge Programme, Local Government Association: London. PDF

Downe, J., Bottrill, I., and Martin, S. (2017) Rising to the Challenge: An Independent Evaluation of the LGA’s Corporate Peer Challenge Programme, Local Government Association, London. PDF