Local government in the UK faces tough times. Money from central government is drastically reduced; income from council tax and other sources stagnates.
Councils have to make difficult decisions about savings, service reductions, and cuts. Those decisions need supporting with good evidence about value for money, about what works, and about the likely impacts of different decisions.
The information available to councils, and the support to ensure that information is used well, differs across the UK. The localist agenda in England encourages a ‘sector-led’ approach. So far this appears to be voluntary and partial. In Wales and Scotland the governments still play a role in collecting performance information and their sector-led approaches are stronger and more deeply embedded in local public services.
Performance measurement, and the use of performance measures to support decisions, should be a basic part of local public service management. Good performance measurement is neither a luxury nor a burden. Performance measurement is the foundation of good management and good decisions. In tough times councils simply cannot afford the risk of basing decisions about the future of local public service on poor information.
Trustworthy performance measures, that are analysed competently and communicated clearly, are important for service managers, for service commissioners and client managers, for councillors, and for citizens.
Performance information should also be an important part of councils’ communications with citizens and service users. An effective dialogue needs information that is accessible, relevant, accurate, and trustworthy.
By comparing one set of performance measures with another, councils change description into analysis. Internal comparisons with targets, past performance, and across the council are important. But it is comparison with other organisations – benchmarking - that adds extra value about what is possible and provides context about how it is possible. But effective benchmarking has to cover outcomes, policies, and objectives as well inputs and outputs. It’s little use proving you have the best apples if citizens need oranges. Comparison needs context. Some of this comes from making more than one type of comparison (looking at similar functions or processes in other councils, but also looking at their strategies and performance). It also comes from workshops and conferences, site visits, and honest internal challenge.
The different approaches to measuring council performance across the UK illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the laissez-faire localism adopted in England and the collective approaches in Scotland and Wales. For APSE this represents important opportunities to step in and stimulate support for, and active engagement in, improving and demonstrating local council successes in these tough times.
A copy of the full report is available to download below: