Smack my bench up
We’ve all been there; when trying to defend the performance / budget / branding / future direction of our service the boss has turned round and said something along the lines of: ‘how does that compare to our neighbours; what’s the benchmark?’
Thus begins another tedious, and absolutely pointless, round of comparison with local councils followed by an equally tedious, and equally pointless, round of explanations as to why the comparisons are actually not a good match with our local context.
I hate benchmarking!
I think it is a weakness of the human condition to constantly want to compare ourselves to others and in local government this inclination is fully played out in the world of performance benchmarking.
For the uninitiated, benchmarking involves comparing the performance of your service/local authority with that of another local authority. The measure you use to do this can come in a variety of different forms and there are whole armies of staff, brought up on a steady diet of performance targets under the last Labour Government to crunch these numbers and produce some sort of comparative figure.
So why is benchmarking a bad idea?
1) No-one ever compares like with like. Most of the things we compare are based on old Government performance measures. These measures are often put together in a slightly random way and involve self reporting of things which are not naturally quantifiable; like detritus. Thus, any measure we compare simply refers to the way I categorise something versus the way you categorise things. Likewise, when comparing costs no-one cuts their services up in the same way; my customer services might include a benefits team, yours doesn’t.
2) The benchmarking doesn’t even compare like with like. Providing a service in my local authority involves very different challenges than services in other authorities; even ones that on the face of things are fairly similar. Yeah, sometimes things are similar but once you’ve controlled for all the differences and the interesting local contexts you’ve basically not got much left.
3) The stats that are comparable are not often the ones that tell us the most about our services; instead they’re the ones other people collect or ones that the Government wanted us to collect.
4) It really doesn’t matter anyway. If your local authority provides a better bin service than the one next door does the local resident give a damn on the day when their bin isn’t collected? Being in the upper quartile of authorities in the south west of England is not exactly a rallying cry for an election, or anything else to be honest.
I’m sure there are good answers to all of the above but to be honest I doubt it would be worth it.
People should not confuse my words with an argument against working with other local authorities or even with comparing our practices with our colleagues. However, comparing our performance with them is likely to either give us a false sense of our own success (leading to complacency) or making us believe we are worse than we are (leading to ignoring it or ignoring local considerations).
I appreciate that these comments sit at the fashionable end of current local government practice but on this one occasion I am very happy to be a fully signed up member of the ‘riding the cool wave’ brigade. To be honest I would be quite happy if I never saw another benchmarking report ever again.
Who knows? Managers might even be encouraged to focus on their own services rather than comparing themselves against others based on a series of arbitrary, inaccurate and ill-fitting indicators.
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