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We must be alert to how performance figures can be manipulated to ...
We must be alert to how performance figures can be manipulated to

cover up poor service, warns Robert Palmer

A decade ago, performance measurement in the public sector was all the rage. Unfortunately, much of the evidence points today to streetwise managers manipulating performance measures to cover up poor performance.

In much of the public sector the bottom line of profit does not exist. Effectiveness is difficult to assess and evaluation relies on performance measurements.

At the very least, many performance measures are diffuse, dull and ineffective. Often systems have become an end in themselves. This is the we-may-not-have-many-bobbies-on-the-beat-but-our-PMs-are-red-hot syndrome. Success is often measured by whether the latest techniques are being used, rather than by results. More worrying is that managers have learned to manipulate measures to show apparently good performance when the opposite is the case.

A major performance measure in the health service is waiting lists. How easy it is to reduce the the list by concentrating on easy and quick operations at the expense of difficult and lengthy ones - bunions instead of bypasses.

Another is that old favourite used by the police, crime clear up rates. These can be improved dramatically if you know how. First, tackle the easy cases and leave the tricky ones for another time. Second, decide to spend more time visiting prisons to persuade prisoners to have other crimes taken into account.

These are perhaps extreme examples. Just as misleading are bland intermediate measures used instead of those which are capable of testing incisively outcomes.

Take Estate Action, a well-meaning programme to improve quality of life in inner city areas, introduced under the Conservatives. Programme managers used a plethora of measures, such as number of properties renovated, which said little if anything about the quality of life. Percentage of residents asking for a transfer, percentage of residents wishing to purchase their own home on the estate or percentage of finance provided by private business would have provided more searching information.

Imagination is useful and often the off-beat measure can throw a revealing shaft of light. For example, asking the views of the concierge of an inner city estate can be worth a raft of performance measures.

In any performance report, the average figure should be accompanied by the best and worst performance. PMs should be vivid and pragmatic and potentially poor performance should leap off the page.

Although a mix of efficiency and effectiveness should be used, no more than six or seven measures should be necessary for a programme. Often PMs are designed to unnecessary exact levels. Remember that measures are indicators of potential problems.

Most importantly, performance measures should be designed to generate action. I have seen the most elaborate systems with no evidence of anybody asking questions, let alone taking remedial action.

Performance measurement generally provides useful information. But the age of innocence has long gone and auditors and others should be alert to gaming and the cynical manipulation of PMs to cover up poor service. One needs to be even more alert where substantial performance bonuses are involved.

Robert Palmer

Associate director, Iris Consulting

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