Benchmarking in Federal Systems

A number of federations are experimenting with new ways to manage relations between the central government and constituent units, with less emphasis on command and control and more on outputs. This is designed to encourage creativity and to provide more autonomy or at least flexibility in managing major programs. One aspect of this is experimenting with benchmarking, which has been tried in various ways in all the OECD federations.

All federations face the issue of balancing the interests of the federal 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. In many federations, the federal governments using legal instruments or the spending power tied down the constituent units with very detailed restrictions regarding program inputs and management. This was often manifestly inefficient and led to a backlash.  Thus, in many federations there has been a trend towards a different kind of relationship between the federal and constituent unit governments in areas of joint interest. Conditions imposed on constituent units are becoming less restrictive. As such controls are loosened many federations are showing a strong interest in benchmarking in order to determine ‘good’ or ‘best practices’. Accordingly, another key objective of benchmarking operations in federal systems is to learn from one another.

The program “Benchmarking in Federal Systems” was initiated in 2010 with the aims of generating comparative knowledge on the experiences of federal systems in introducing benchmarking methods in policies executed by constituent units as a way to foster learning and to improve performance. The program has had an explicit focus on the implications of using benchmarking as an alternative to controls tied to fiscal transfers but also on the politics of benchmarking – how to put it in place and make it work. This Forum program has been lead by Prof. Alan Fenna, who has produced an occasional paper in 2010 covering Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union (Link to Occasional Paper-06-Benchmarking). A roundtable in Canada under this program took place in Toronto in May 2011 in cooperation with the Mowat Centre  – (Link to the Report on Benchmarking) (earlier events had been held in Australia, Germany and Switzerland). A larger comparative publication was released in summer 2012 in association with the Productivity Commission in Australia, based on the conference the Forum held in Melbourne in October 2010. The publication can be accessed here:

As of January 2012, the Forum and the Cardiff Business School (CBS) are implementing a one-year program “Learning by Comparing: Benchmarking and Performance Assessment in Public Services” under a research grant awarded from the Economic and Social Research Council of the United Kingdom. The knowledge exchange under this grant will facilitate the development of networks of policy makers and practitioners who will work with social science researchers to analyze and respond to the challenges of performance assessment in public services. This program covers five inter related sets of activities:

  • Seminars in the UK involving social science researchers and the key bodies responsible for the design and implementation of performance assessment frameworks in public services. CBS will convene three seminars in England and two each in Scotland and Wales.
  • Networks – the seminars will create networks of policy makers, practitioners and researchers who will be invited to inform the design and co-produce subsequent research on the effectiveness of emerging performance assessment frameworks.
  • International events – the Forum will convene three international conferences in the UK (February 2012), Canada (October 2012) and Australia (February 2012).
  • Policy briefing/Manual that will provide a state of the art assessment of performance assessment written for a policy and practitioner audience and distributed widely via the web, professional associations and other media. It will draw together lessons from the seminars and national conference and highlight best practice from the UK and OECD-type federal countries.

Here you will find the report of the international conference in London (February 2012) Link to Benchmarking Conference Report Feb 2012.