Payment for success (link opens a PDF) aims to highlight areas of inefficiency within public sector service delivery; to suggest changes to performance management processes; and to link funding with outcomes. None of this is particularly unreasonable, nor is it that new as a concept.
The first I heard about it was when KPMG’s Alan Downey was interviewed on the Today programme this morning as I was on my way to work. The report itself materialised later in the morning (props to @bethanar for finding it and writing an excellent blog post about it). Part of my remit at work is to keep an eye on any important reports, policies or ideas which emerge within our sector. This is certainly one of them. Here are my thoughts.
The report identifies seven “problems” with our public services and with the way we pay for them in the UK:
- We are paying a lot more, but the extra money is buying less.
- If the average UK public service provider was as efficient as the top quartile, there would be a 20 to 30% saving in the £250bn cost of most public services.
- Instead of challenging public service providers to do more for less through tougher prices and more freedom to respond, we have tried (and failed) to solve the efficiency problem from Whitehall.
- Public sector reform has failed to link good ideas with financial consequences (and vice versa), so there has been very limited reform.
- Performance management has significantly improved across public service providers (whether public, private or voluntary sector), but it has focused on eliminating the worst performers, rather than liberating the best to thrive and grow.
- Public service reform has not been radical – the underlying structure and culture of public service professions, institutions and management has not been fundamentally challenged.
- Performance management has, in most cases, been undermined in most cases by its disconnect from financial management, which remains poor in many parts of the public sector.
Again, there’s nothing that radical here: we all know that we need to perform better, and that we should be better able to demonstrate that performance in terms of outputs relevant to the service we’re here to provide. But there are some problems – general and specific – with this document.
23% of all statistics are made up
The report uses stats to make generalisations about public services. It does so like this:
According to the ONS, over the period from 1997-2007 UK private sector productivity went up by 20% in the services sector, whilst public sector productivity in fact fell by over 3.4%.
A percentage on its own is quite meaningless. I don’t know how big the things it’s attempting to describe are. Nor do I know how one measures “productivity,” although there are many mentions of things like “unit cost” throughout the report. If I can’t see the underlying data, I can’t really make any judgement about what it means.
Where does this information come from?
I’d like to know the source of the data being quoted. The example above tells me that it comes from the ONS. It’s probably safe to assume that the audience for this document will know who that is, but it’s pretty bad form to throw acronyms around without explaining them. I should know, I do it all the time. My point here is this: I should be able to compare the claims made by Alan Downey et al with their source data. I should be able to check that the percentages are accurate. I should be able to ask myself whether the source is valid, the data collection procedures are robust, and whether there has been any obvious misinterpretation contrary to the original intentions of the people who assembles the data. I can’t do that if they don’t tell me where they’ve found this stuff. Any Ben Goldacre fan could tell you that.
Context is king
This section on differences in performance by different public service providers stood out for me:
- if the average NHS hospital was as efficient in its treatments as the top quartile, the NHS could provide 27% more treatments for patients, which would otherwise cost £12bn extra to provide
- In probation, if the average provider was as efficient as the top quartile performers there would be a saving of nearly 40% in supervising unpaid work sentences
- The cost of collecting the council tax across local authorities has ranged from £4 to £47 per household.
It’s an example, but there are several statements in the document which imply that the UK is homogenous: that there are no socioeconomic, cultural, or geographical differences between different parts of the country. Think about that for a moment: is this true? Is each local authority indistinct from the other in terms of educational achievement or multi-generational unemployment? Does each ward within a borough have literacy and numeracy levels equal with its neighbours? Does each neighbourhood within a ward have the same number of families in receipt of benefits? Different places will naturally bring different circumstances, some of which are likely to make service delivery harder – or even just different – and it’s not a huge leap from different delivery requirements to different costs.
There will undoubtedly be similarities both at hyperlocal level and across the country. But I think we need to shift our focus: it shouldn’t be on the bigger picture so much as on a series of miniature portraits. If we are to understand our communities as the context within which we deliver public services, we need to gather and act on as much information on them as we can assemble. Making broad assumptions that “area cost adjustment areas” – areas where the cost of delivering services should be the same (although there’s no indication of how one might determine this) – are not open to cost variation, even though their service delivery costs are evidently different, seems flawed.
Public libraries: a soft target
The real kick in the teeth, though, comes on page 19. It makes some assumptions about libraries: the kind people are likely to blame CILIP (see how I just used an acronym without telling you what it means?) for. It’s not entirely CILIP’s fault, although they obviously have a role to play in managing perceptions of our services: there’s a clear onus on us as individuals delivering these services within our user communities to communicate more effectively the benefits of what we do. Geography teachers have similar issues. We also need to get better at talking about what we actually do.
in North America libraries are often run by volunteers not paid council staff, whilst in the UK charity shops often have waiting lists of volunteers wanting to help them with book sales
In North America, public libraries get their funding from different sources. I don’t know much about the intricacies of it, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t all come from local government. There’s also a strong tradition of philanthropy in the US (I’m thinking of Gates and Buffet here), as Margaret Hodge noted at the PLA conference last year.
The most problematic assumption, though, is the one that library staff do nothing but issue books. Librarians – and I use the term in its broadest sense to encompass all staff delivering library services – do far more than that. We are committed to upholding people’s right to access books, information and ideas and to navigate through the morass to find what they want. We add value far beyond the content of our bookstock. But we’re not good at quantifying it, nor are we good at the snappy soundbites other people produce to (inaccurately) describe what we do.
much of the public space in a library is badly used storing infrequently used books
I’m assuming these are the same books that make up our much-treasured broad backstock, which neither Waterstone’s nor Amazon can rival. For a nation increasingly relying on intellectual capital for revenue generation, I’d say that this is essential.
Giving councils total freedom on libraries could mean that they create huge social value from engaging a community in running its own library, backed up with some modern technology, whilst also saving large amounts of money on over-skilled paid staff, poor use of space and unnecessary stock
I have a Masters degree from a Russell Group university. While I don’t necessarily agree with CILIP’s qualifications system, I believe that my paper qualifications, on-the-job training and aptitude indicate the skill set I have. It’s a broad one, as a public librarian might go from finding books for an A-level course to meeting with heads of other council services to plan future work within the space of an afternoon. I’m not bragging when I say that I’m one of the best (or at least one of the most promising in 2006, but I’m going to hang onto that accolade for as long as I can). I’m not over-skilled though: I’m adequately skilled for a wide-ranging and relatively unpredictable job. As I make the transition to management, I can see the value of a mixed skill set in the library workplace. It’s essential.
When giving comment, it’s often appropriate to offer a feedback sandwich: a bad news/good news/bad news combo. The good news is that this document has a lot of content which is familiar and which is a good idea. The authors advocate against top-down management and the culture of managing performance from Whitehall. They call for the use of meaningful outcome measures, for some sort of measurable value other than how busy we’ve been.
Most importantly, though, they’ve got us talking. They’ve made us revisit our inability to communicate our value and they’ve made us consider our context in the ever-shifting world of public service delivery. We have an opportunity to do something positive on the back of this and I hope it’s taken.