In Defence of Performance Figures


 

LG Worker to the rescue

 

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.

Monitoring

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.

Accountability

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.

Benchmarking

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.

Partnership

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.

LG Worker.

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7 Comments on “In Defence of Performance Figures”

  1. localgov Says:

    I just want to say that’s a brilliant post with some key points I can agree with.

    If – and it’s a big if – there are armchair auditors out there then performance could be a hugely powerful tool (assuming it’s presented well).

    However, I’m a little jaded by the constant shifting of targets, indicators and goal posts just so that things can be positively reported. Recently I heard of a project which has statistically achieved less than 10% of its outcomes (and even that is stretching it). However, because the service head wanted to be seen in a good light they insisted that it wasn’t red flagged and that everything was on track.

    Anyway, I really look forward to your next post.

    Obi-Wan has taught you well.

    • LG Worker Says:

      And that is why you need to be:
      1. Constantly aware of the dangers of the gaming and what not taht exist with indicators. As I say, they are not perfect and can not do everything.
      2. The context of the data. We can make data say anything we like, that’s why you need to have a commentary with the data. So your service head could claim that the project is on track because the targets don’t need to be met untill an undisclosed date. So make sure the commentary is good 9I feel I may be shooting myself in the foot with this comment!).
      3. Realise performance and targets are there to give you information, not to blow your trumpet (so bad news shows you, your performance systems are working. So expect bad news). Oh and don’t. as one Comms Officer told me, give performance information in news stories. It looks like propaganda and no one believes it.

  2. Another Performance Officer Says:

    Hurrah! Someone joining me in defending indicators.

    not necessarily any given indicator (though I agree, as I said before, NI 195 is definitely not that bad). Done right, as it has not always been, it’s the most powerful way to manage and improve an organisation.

    The other point that this doesn’t capture is impartiality. I read somewhere a Chief Exec of a Council said something along the lines of ‘I don’t need an indicator to tell me how clean the streets are, I can see that as I walk around’. But I doubt he walks every street, or notices them all equally. Indicators/data give some context and real minformation to say whether somethings a fair judgement or just prejudice.

  3. localgovaswell Says:

    I love the debate… Only in Local Government!

    My only comment would be this; I use performance indicators all the time and they are massively beneficial if designed properly in managing services… But I still believe national indicators are a bad idea (even NI 195)

    Really good post though; loving the thought provoking-ness (if that is a word!)

  4. J.G.Harston Says:

    “Scrutiny councillors holding the executive to account” Oo, good one. Tell me another.

    You can only hold somebody to account if you have to power to fire them. Scrutiny councillors can’t fire the executive. In the extreme circumstances there’s the theoretical possibility for the councillors in the same political group as the leader to depose their leader, but there’s nothing a Scutiny Board can do to stop the Executive doing what they want. As a board member of a Housing Association I had more power to hold the executive to account than I ever had as a Scrutiny Board member.

    Not even the electorate can hold the executive to account. All the electorate can do is fire one particular person in their ward who happens to be associated with the executive they want to fire – even if (as I have seen) that person they have fired has been a long-term thorn in the side of the executive composed of his own party, vigourously defending the residents against the council.

    I’ve only once even seen a Council Leader fired by the electorate, and that because his particular ward had gone marginal, and even that didn’t change the control of the council because the controlling group just selected a new leader.

    “If I voted my Council in to make cupcakes, why does the data show they are making buns instead?” Usually because the voters vote for a brand or personality ignoring what the people they voted in actually do:

    “I don’t want this traffic reduction scheme”
    “But you voted for Fred, whose party implemented it, you should have voted for Jim whose party opposed it”.
    “But Fred said he opposed it”
    “Yes, but Fred’s part supported it, and Fred’s party controls the council, and there’s nothing Fred can do to stop it. You should have voted for Jim, and then Jim’s party would have taken control of the council and cancelled the scheme.”
    “No, I’ve always voted for party X, my father voted for party X, my grandfather voted for party X. I’m going to keep voting for party X as hard as I can until they get rid of the traffic reduction scheme..”

    • LG Worker Says:

      J.G. Harston you make a good point about the weakness of our democratic process and the Scrutiny process (there is a whole post you could write about this. For example, for the officer in Scrutiny how easy is it for them to question the people they work for when they are not independent like their Select Committee cousins?). However I think you are unfair on holding people to account. The performance data at least gives you something you can start questioning the politicians with. So going forward with the cupcakes; cupcakes are really important in my authority but they are producing buns. I get the data, I start asking questions, I start getting other residents involved (we become a focus group), we get the local press involved. The politicians feel the pressure and the executive start making cupcakes instead of buns. We haven’t fired them but we’ve made ourselves heard.


  5. [...] were often better than we were so it was a pleasure to post pieces as diverse as a discussion of performance indicators, George Osborne’s Child Benefit changes and the salami slice. We hope to see many more in the [...]


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