Benchmarking and external performance assessments are key techniques in the long-standing drive to improve the performance of local public services. The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of this initiative though several federal systems such as Australia and Canada also strive to apply these techniques.
Indeed, benchmarking arrangements are being widely adopted across federal systems. All federations face the issue of balancing the interests of the central government in key areas of public policy with the desire of constituent units to have autonomy or at least flexibility in terms of how they manage major programs. Benchmarking is emerging as a way of escaping some of the rigidities of traditional conditional grant programs, injecting a new dynamics into federal practices, and shifting the focus to outcomes achievement and â€˜best practice’.
On this background, the Forum of Federations held a two-day conference on Public Service Benchmarking under Localism and Federalism on the 22nd and 23rd February in London, United Kingdom. The event forms part of an ESRC funded knowledge exchange program, run by the Forum of Federations and the Cardiff Business School, which feeds into the Forum of Federation’s comparative project on ” Benchmarking in Federal Systems “. The objective of the conference was to share experiences between central-local government exercises in the UK and federal-constituent unit governments in federal countries. The conference was attended by subject matter experts and government officials. Conference Agenda
Discussions at the conference revealed that the current localist emphasis in England, coupled with newly developing approaches in Wales and Scotland, make it important to exchange knowledge between jurisdictions in order to identify and share effective practice and methodologies. While one might expect benchmarking in federal government systems to be very different from benchmarking in unitary states, conference participants identified a lot of commonalities in the questions being asked, the problems faced, and the approaches adopted. There is much to be learned about inter-governmental benchmarking by looking across federal and unitary systems.
Based on presentations on the use and impact of performance assessment in sectoral areas (education, environment, health and social policy) as well as on technical issues (data validity, verification and consistency; and benchmarking frameworks), the following key learning points emerged that will guide the future work of the ESRC-funded knowledge exchange program.
Benchmarking comes in many forms – in practice â€˜benchmarking’ is used to label a wide variety of arrangements. It would be beneficial to characterise the main differences between benchmarking models by analysing them along a series of dimensions. One such dimension is a continuum from top down/coercive benchmarking to bottom up/consensus benchmarking. Another dimension to emerge from the presentations is peer-review vs indicator-driven approaches.
Drivers of benchmarking differences: the conference identified the following drivers of differences in benchmarking design: a) the goals of the activity (accountability, learning, improvement, agenda setting and advocacy), and b) subject matter – what is being benchmarked (for example: tangible versus intangible services, input, processes, outputs and/or outcomes).
All benchmarking systems face considerable challenges in creating and compiling robust and comparable indicators. Producing good comparative data is only one step in the benchmarking process, and an equally important step is to ensure adequate analysis and interpretation of this data (the accompanying narrative is key to the potential impact of benchmarking).
Some conference participants voiced scepticism about the operation and impact of various benchmarking systems because of the difficulty of monitoring service (or organisational) quality and performance through a limited set of indicators, and the numerous incentives for gaming.
Finally, participants discussed how benchmarking systems should be set up. Benchmarking can be viewed as an instrument of governance (particularly in federal systems), but the issue of the governance of benchmarking projects also emerged as a key issue.
The workshop was hosted by the Local Government Association in London and was co-organized by the Forum of Federations, the Cardiff Business Scholl, and the University of Edinburgh, with the financial support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) of the UK.
Attendance at the conference was by invitation only.