Public Services Performance Assessment and Benchmarking: Sharing Experiences from across the UK and Internationally


Recent years have seen an increasing interest in the impact and use of benchmarking techniques to improve performance, and the UK has been at the forefront. Evidence shows that comparative performance assessments in local government are crucial for governments and citizens to ensure both effective and efficient accountability in public services.

In this context, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Forum of Federations (FoF) held a seminar on ‘Public Services Performance Assessment and Benchmarking’ on the 27th June in London. This event, the concluding part of a knowledge exchange programme on sharing experiences from across the UK and internationally, was organised by an international team of researchers from Cardiff and St. Andrews Universities. The seminar was hosted at the Local Government Association.

The event provided an important opportunity to exchange knowledge and experiences between policy makers, practitioners and academics from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, drawing also on experiences from other countries and from previous events in the knowledge exchange programme. Seminar presentations and discussions addressed the following issues:

• role of self-assessment and sector-led approaches to supporting improvement and ensuring accountability
• assessment of outcomes from Community Planning Partnerships
• impact of intervention in failing services and councils
• the role which citizens play in assessing performance
• use of performance management and benchmarking in inter-governmental relations
• the need to base assessments on the right kinds of data and evidence, and
• the importance of aligning performance frameworks with other accountability mechanisms and wider reforms including local government re-organisation.

Professor Steve Martin of Cardiff University opened the event by noting not only the need to deliver public services efficiently, but also recognising the importance of knowledge exchange practices in order for countries to learn from each other. The seminar was the last event of a series of successful roundtable events across the UK, and three international conferences held in the UK, Canada and Australia.

Localism, Accountability and Self-Improvement

• Daniel Hallam, Accountability Delivery Team Leader, Department for Communities and Local Government
• Dr Barry Quirk, Chief Executive, London Borough of Lewisham
• Clive Betts MP, Chair, Select Committee on Communities and Local Government

Daniel Hallam reflected on the new approach of the Government in performance improvement in English local government since 2010, which includes increased local accountability, financial independence and removed burdens.

The current government has taken different measures for improvement in local government based on principles of accountability, transparency and decentralisation. These include the abolition of the Audit Commission and Local Area Agreements and Multi-Area Agreements, and the introduction of a Transparency Code for councils. He noted that there is also peer review and peer support available to assist councils.

The Government has a different definition of what constitutes improvement, leaving more room for local objectives, and setting targets and indicators. There is a belief that the local government should have responsibility for its own improvement. The government is more prepared to get to know what the people want, be more accountable and make savings in order to tackle needs and transform services.

There is a complex picture across local government and there is a need to recognise that different services require different approaches. For instance, children’s social care is considered a high risk service, and hence has inspections of providers. On the other hand, local authorities’ corporate governance is no longer inspected.

Dr Barry Quirk, chief executive of the London Borough of Lewisham gave an overview of the variety of strategies of performance management as a core management technique for local government improvement. He argued that the principle of accountability is crucial in improving performance, with different actors involved such as service users, citizens, service providers and elected politicians.

There is a need to be aware of different actors and demands involved in the delivery of public services, and correspondingly different approaches and techniques of performance management. He stressed the example of the ‘management report’ experience of the London Borough of Lewisham where a monthly compendium of performance statistics is reported to the public but which rarely gets a response.

The approach to performance measurement has to be changed quite often in order to prevent the downsides of performance benchmarking such as gaming effects, and over-reliance on quantitative measures. It is important to note that healthy organisations are creative and disciplined in their management. Measurement helps management but management is not just measurement.

Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government acknowledged that work has been done in order to improve accountability in government as well as in services. He argued that there is a need to define accountability in terms of who takes the responsibility of specifying where the accountability rests, and its effects in the community. In this context, the current government is working to codify the specific responsibilities of central and local government. Local government needs to be more independent of central government in order to improve its accountability. Localism gives the community the opportunity to ensure accountability. Local governments are the level of government and public administration closest to citizens, and for that reason it is important to empower councils to understand and implement transparency and accountability measures.

Performance Frameworks and Community Planning Partnerships

• Fraser McKinley, Director of Best Value and Scrutiny Improvement, Audit Scotland
• Peter McNaney, Chief Executive, Belfast City Council

Fraser McKinley, Director of Best Value and Scrutiny Improvement of the Audit Scotland introduced the case of Performance Frameworks and Community Planning Partnerships in Scotland. He explained that in Scotland there is a renewed focus on community planning at the local and national level. In recent years, they have been working to improve the public services agenda with reviews of governance structures, establishing fewer and clearer priorities towards a stronger ‘outcomes’ agenda for community engagement. In terms of community planning partnerships, he reported that despite many examples of effective joint working, there is a weak or absent strategic alignment and no real evidence that those partnerships have yet made a sustained impact.

McKinley acknowledged that community planning has been seen as a council-driven exercise, whereas shared leadership is needed. Community planning in Scotland is not yet at the heart of public services delivery, and there is a need of a ‘joined-up’ approach for public service reform. In terms of governance and accountability, he stated that insufficient action has been taken to challenge and address underperformance.

There is a need to develop a performance management strategy to drive improvement. Performance management has been inhibited by inconsistencies in local and national data as well as a lack of commitment in reporting results. He argued that community planning partnerships have to realise that they can make the greatest difference. But they need to improve their governance, performance management, planning and accountability – in other words, to develop a coherent public services reform agenda.

Peter McNaney, Chief Executive of Belfast City Council introduced the experience on Performance Frameworks and Community Planning in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has a devolved power sharing regional government and an enforced coalition composed of 12 government departments and an elected Assembly. Northern Ireland has a strategic programme for government, with a focus on economic and investment planning, with a strong social agenda, and with a regional development strategy geared to building a united community.

Belfast is the largest city in the country and has 51 councillors. Although Belfast is an economic driver for the region, it also has high levels of poverty and low educational attainment. Until 2006, Belfast did not have a local government performance framework, a local improvement agency, or benchmarking systems for improvement. On the contrary, there was a reliance on ‘best value’ legislation. In 2006, IDeA did a peer review and this led to the establishment of benchmarks for good governance and a push for improvement.

Belfast City Council has reviewed its own performance and planning systems with the help of UK Research and Consultancy Services Ltd. This focussed on consultation with stakeholders to produce ‘a way forward report’. The report showed that Belfast faces major challenges in moving towards a new performance framework within the changes taking place in Northern Ireland local government, even though it has a very strong base of performance management and measurement to build on.

Afternoon Session
Professor Sandra Nutley from the University of St Andrews introduced the afternoon session and the two panels of discussion – first a panel on intervention in failing councils, and second, a panel on evidence for accountability and improvement.

Intervention in Failing Councils Where, When and What Works

• Steve Pomeroy, Head of Local Government Improvement, Welsh Government
• Jo Miller, Chief Executive, Doncaster Council

Steve Pomeroy, Head of Local Government Improvement at the Welsh Government, introduced the model of intervention, improvement and learning for local government. He argued that intervention is a response of failure. In order to implement an effective intervention, Ministerial decisions and directed measures governed by statute are needed. The intervention has to be restorative, and therefore by definition not a routine policy instrument.

Steve introduced the Ynys Mon experience. It is a unitary authority of 70,000 population, with a long history of political turbulence and under-performance. A WAO report of July 2009 showed insufficient progress and in 2011, the Welsh Government appointed five commissioners to run the council. The intervention provided hands-on support throughout a period of radical change in the Council. He reported that as a result of these measures the Council was able to take back control over time.

Any intervention costs money and causes service disruption and every intervention is unique which means there is limited precedent. One of the major drawbacks of intervention is that there are too many choices of what to do without enough evidence of what should be done. Monitoring progress depends on the mode of intervention and needs a clear assessment methodology, supported by an established and regulatory reporting system at local and national level.

Jo Miller, Chief Executive of Doncaster Council introduced the case of Doncaster which had a troubled history of poor governance and a damning report from the Audit Commission. The Council has been working with the Audit Commission, the Government and the Local Government Association in other to ensure that both staff and people of the Borough get a better deal. One of the major intervention strategies has been the incorporation of community participation. This has been a stimulus for improvement in performance because the community is the main observer of improvement in the delivery of public services. In this context, Miller argued that it is very important to give voice to citizens.

She reported that the council has been improving in terms of accountability, cultural behaviour and community participation, and highlighted the importance of reporting results because institutions can be made more aware of their failures, and this is a stimulus to improve.

Panel on Evidence for Accountability and Improvement

• Bob Black, Former Auditor, General of Scotland
• Dr Barry Quirk, Chief Executive, London Borough of Lewisham
• David Walker, Member of the ESRC Council and Contributing Editor, Guardian’s Public Leaders Network
• Anna Beckett, Ipsos-MORI

Bob Black, Former Auditor of General of Scotland argued that any performance management arrangement have to focus on efficiency and effectiveness of the public services and be viewed in their political and policy context. It is also important to understand the new network and architecture of ‘partnerships’ as it relates to performance management, as well as awareness of policy diversity.

There is a new challenge in the design of performance management because local authorities have been applying different sorts of benchmarking and performance measurement techniques. Scotland has moved to an assessment process which was developed in a collegial way with emphasis on single outcome agreements, with community partnerships combining local and national targets. Evidence for accountability and improvement has to be independent of the government in terms of the reporting process.

Dr Barry Quirk, Chief Executive of the London Borough of Lewisham emphasised the need to identify the dynamics as well as the causes of performance problem. The source might be political dysfunction as well as managerial weakness.

David Walker, Member of the ESRC Council and Contributing Editor of the Guardian’s Public Leaders Network pointed out that evidence is critical for accountability and improvement. He argued that benchmarking techniques have faced a variety of challenges such as complexity in politics, cost, and accountability trades offs. Public capacity is inherently limited and benchmarking cannot be successful without some form of quality assurance provided by an experienced audit body.

David recognised the importance of exchange programmes in the UK in order to understand and learn from good experience elsewhere. However, he also noted how very complicated it is to transfer that experience and to make valid comparisons. Finally, he argued that benchmarking and comparison is an uneasy bedfellow for Localism, and all the implications of legitimate difference that localism implies.

Anna Beckett of Ipsos-MORI presented evidence for accountability and improvement from the public’s perspective. She reported that there is a range of innovative ways for the public to be involved in accountability and audit measures. Public priorities have changed in recent years. Some years ago, improvement in NHS was the main priority, but the economy is more important to the public than public service delivery.

She reported that citizens are negative about the impact of current government approaches to public services. There are two sorts of accountability; negative and positive accountability – negative accountability is about trying to stop things going wrong and holding people to account when they do, and positive accountability is about using what we know to make things better.

The inspection of public services is not a big issue for citizens – few are thinking about it although generally people do think it is important. Enabling choice is sometimes seen as flip-side of accountability but choice is not always exercised, or, if it is, then not always in a way that will lead to a service improvement focus. For instance, location is by far the most common factor in choosing a service provider.

There has been an increasing emphasis on the role of the citizen in holding services (both public and private sector) to account, or in looking for ways to encourage the regulated to take more responsibility for outcomes. Research shows that there is a potential tension between accountability and alternative delivery mechanisms. Finally, the key question is what will happen next, as service delivery chains become more complex and potentially further removed from elected officials who can/should be held to account and how?

Future Knowledge Exchange and Research Opportunities

Dr Clive Grace of Cardiff Business School described the aims of the ESRC Knowledge Exchange project. He reported high interest and engagement in the events in the UK and in Canada and Australia. He emphasised that knowledge exchange and knowledge generation go hand in hand certainly the knowledge of the team leading the project has increased during the process of implementing it.

A number of key themes have developed from the project. One is that whilst the UK may be an outlier in the extent and nature of benchmarking of local services, it shares many features with the performance measurement and management of sub-national units in other (including federal) jurisdictions. Vertical fiscal imbalance is a major impulse to performance measurement in the UK as it is elsewhere. There are also common types of data problems which bedevil comparison. There is an implicit causal analysis and understanding of why things go right or wrong and how they might best be copied or fixed. The line between positive criticism and blame is continually negotiated. These are features of performance management systems in many countries.

The team has also observed a constant flux between self-regulatory and more incentivised and interventionist arrangements, with visible ‘performance regimes’ in many jurisdictions underpinned by explicit or implicit ‘theories of improvement’. There are complex and multiple purposes and intersecting accountabilities between national and sub-national levels of government, and between government and the citizenry.

A number of potential future research themes were identified. These focused on mapping the changing landscape of performance regimes by taking advantage of the ‘natural laboratory’ of the UK; a need to examine empirical evidence on the impact of benchmarking systems; and recognising the multiple and cross-cutting accountabilities as well as the influence of politics and politicians in benchmarking techniques. Other important themes are the role of the citizenry, and the need to focus on austerity and performance management, as well as on the impact of digital technology in service delivery and performance improvement.

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