In Defence of Performance Figures
I recently wrote a post trashing performance indicators: LG Worker responded in the comments section and so I invited him/her to write a post in defence of performance indicators… And, as if by magic: here it is!
When I first joined Local Government, several Authorities and several years ago, I had a 1 to 1 with a Colleague I saw more as a mentor. As we sat in the local pub (after work I hasten to add), he turned to me and said, ‘Young Padawan, to progress your career, you should get some Performance Management experience.’ This statement was geeky in two ways. The first was the reference to Star Wars, as far as I knew I was not a Jedi who had ‘the Force.’ The second was the reference to Performance.
As I was relatively new to Local Government and really to the world of work, I had no real understanding of what Performance was. The title gave clues but not the full picture. Anyway, soon after I found myself in the Council’s Performance Team. Within six months of being there, I could not see the point of my work (how did it connected with the residents?) and had badly messed up a big project. As this project crashed around me, I decided I needed to take a break and reassess my options.
In the long weekend I took, instead of deciding to give Performance up, I had an epiphany and saw not only how important Performance is but also how it linked back to our ultimate bosses, the residents. In this period were Performance Indicators are being thrown out (I hear the usual bloggers of this site cheering), I want to defend them and show you why they are a tool we should be holding on to.
Their defence is provided by the four things they help provide; monitoring, accountability, benchmarking and partnership.
Last week, in the comments section I asked if we took away indicators, how can we show people how well or badly we were doing? Quiet rightly, the bloggers of this site asked, ‘why do we need to show people this info?’ The answer? It isn’t residents we should be showing this information to but Councillors and Senior Officers.
Lets use the ‘What would my Mother do’ rule. If she ran a multi-million pound company, she would want to know what was working in that company and what wasn’t. I would imagine she would also be interested in whether the money she was ploughing into her services was actuarially producing something that was working. All of this information can be gained through Performance Monitoring. In effect the monitoring will give Mother (this is starting to sound like 1950s sit-com) a set of data about her services. Using the analytical skills every Performance Officer should have, they should be able to explain the figures to Mother. She will then have an idea how things are running (see the street cleaning indicator disliked by this blog. It maybe bureaucratic but it gives you qualitative information about what can be a subjective issue. You now know were to send your cleaning crews). Where Councils have failed in the past, is understanding what information Mother needs and what tools she needs to understand that data. So basically, not everything can be monitored and that needs to be made clear.
Of course the hated side of indicators, and therefore of monitoring, is target setting. However if done well, a Member or Senior Officer can find out a lot about services and a Manager can get improvement. First of, when target setting, ask what is it you want to achieve? A target on arrests won’t get you a reduction in crime, it will just get you an increase in arrests. Then set out clearly how the target will be monitored (your data is only as good as your audit trail). When done correctly you will receive information on how you are performing against what you want to achieve. If your Performance Officer is worth their salt, they will also be able to give you information about why you are doing well or why you are doing badly. If linked with costs, you can also see if you are spending your money wisely. So you are now able to act to improve your services for your residents (all because you have that data).
By the way, recognise a vice of targets; gaming. Anyone will bend the rules to hit the target and as time goes on this will get worst (look for stories in the Daily Mail to see the evidence). One way around this, is to be willing to revise not only the target but the indicator (oh and get rid of the old indicators. People still use the BVPIs, though the Nis took over). Indeed getting rid of the CAA and the NIs might help us here. As Council’s we now have the freedom to say what outcomes we want to monitor (localism and all that). So lets start from the beginning and do it right.
For political organisations, we actually have very little to hold the Politicians or the Officers to account. Performance helps here. As you now have all this data (with helpful explanations) about how a service is performing (and in some cases linked with money), anyone (linking to residents and the armchair accounts) can now use the data and question what the Council is doing. If I voted my Council in to make cupcakes, why does the data show they are making buns instead? Of course this data needs context and skills of interpreting but this is where structures like Overview and Scrutiny can come in. The data can be used by Scrutiny Councillors to ask hard questions of the Executive. They are helped because they get the recourse of Officers who can find out the context and explain the data.
If I have all this data on my servicers and I’m sensible enough to have an agreement that similar organisations would have like for like indicators, I can now compare my performance against an outside factor; the other organisation. But I can go further. I see that the other organisation is doing better at an indicator then me, I can go to them and find out why. Therefore ‘best-practice’ is being shared. However, it gets better, because in reality ‘best-practice’ is a meaningless term, ‘best-practice’ will be what’s good for me, not what is good for someone else. So I can take what the other organisation is doing and adapt it to my situation. I have now been creative. This can turn into an improvement cycle, were the ‘best-practice’ adapts because of the situation and the data. There is also a factor of competition. I want to be better than them, so I find ways to be better. Hopefully this all results in good stuff for the residents.
That ‘best-practice,’ has already started some partnership working, well you’ve made contacts. However Performance can help partnerships develop (why we should adopt the old LAAs (R.I.P.)). By giving a partnership some indicators that they are all responsible for, they can all start to work together (I know it’s harder then this, but I only have so much space). Even better, accountability again appears. Those joint indicators can now be used by one of the Partners to hold the whole partnership to account (what Overview and Scrutiny should be able to do). Even better, it could be used by the armchair accounts. Its crude but because of the original agreement, you have a stick to beat all with.
Anyway, I hope this rather long blog has persuaded you of some benefits of performance indicators. They are not the answer to everything (it’s when they are used as if they are that they don’t work) and they have a lot of problems but they also have a lot of advantages. So in this post-CAA era, one I think will be dominated by local performance indicators, get your Council to think of the benefits and maybe avoid the mistakes. Finally, remember Performance is basically a crude tool to get data. In reality it is an abacus compared to a scientific calculator; complex but it doesn’t have all the answers.
Oh and the mentor was right, Performance has help progress my career.