Public Services Management: Performing rites: Roger Trapp takes the measure of a new book on monitoring effectiveness in the public sector

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The Independent Online
THE RECENT furore over crime clear-up rates is a neat example of the problems of measuring performance in the public sector at a time of increasing pressure on the national budget.

Although clear-up rates seem a good way of assessing the effectiveness of the police, they bring with them certain dangers. Chief among these, according to Bob Palmer, a management consultant with Price Waterhouse and expert on obtaining value for money in the public sector, is creating the 'wrong behaviour'. Not picking the right performance indicator 'can drive you down the wrong path and can be destructive'.

With the police this 'wrong path' was including 'crimes taken into account' and not just those genuinely detected when compiling clear-up rates. The resulting impressive improvements in performance masked the fact that little had really changed.

Keeping police authorities and other government bodies on the right path in the quest for the most effective use of dwindling financial resources is the aim of a book that Mr Palmer has just published with Peter Jackson, head of the management centre at Leicester University. Developing Performance Monitoring in Public Sector Organisations is designed to answer the demands of managers in local government, the health service and elsewhere for a comprehensive reference work on the often complex task of measuring the economy, efficiency, quality and - most important - the effectiveness of public sector services and programmes. As well as developing the concepts and ideas of the authors' previous book, First Steps in Measuring Performance in the Public Sector, which was a best-seller in the field, the book offers a great deal of practical advice, particularly in the form of case histories. 'The first book was a start. This one goes into rather more depth,' says Mr Palmer, who has specialised in the area since the Audit Commission was set up to monitor local government finances more than a decade ago.

Having started with local government, he has spread his interests as the pressure for improved performance has pervaded the whole of government. 'Huge amounts of public money are being spent. Unless you have performance measures, you're in trouble,' he says.

Although obtaining value for money is always important, it is made more so by the increasing pressure on finance and the growing demands on public sector managers to adopt the commercial approach of the private sector through such means as competitive tendering. In the private sector, though, measuring the effectiveness of something is relatively easy since profit, or the bottom line, is the guiding principle. In the public arena it is more complex. How, for instance, do you measure the effectiveness of a government policy?

Hence the need for the right indicators. Choose wisely and it is possible to work out quickly which programmes are working and which are not, and act accordingly. But just as in the private sector, there is the risk of taking too much of a short-term view, he says. This is particularly true since many indicators have been related to saving money rather than improving effectiveness. 'You can save money, but the fabric crumbles in the long term. It's important to have economy and quality alongside one another.'

However, this emphasis on input rather than output is starting to change. And the officials involved in this move need guidance as they feel their way, he adds. Helping them avoid the many pitfalls and hurdles along the route is a fundamental goal of the book.

Consequently, any police authority seeking to make sensible use of crime clearance rates is guided to the section on policing performance models. There, the authors include a summary of research carried out in the United States by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state police organisations.

Although the FBI uses the clearance rate as an important indicator, it seeks to refine it by making a strict distinction between 'primary clearance', where at least one suspect has been arrested and charged, and 'exceptional clearance', where the person arrested confesses to other crimes, the accused dies, the victim refuses to co-operate in the prosecution, or the suspect is transferred to another area to face other charges.

' 'Exceptional clearances' may be a substantial proportion of total clearances and if not shown separately may encourage too much police effort to be directed to crime clearance involving prison visits and 'taken into accounts' and not enough to the task of crime detection,' according to the authors.

Moreover, the FBI believes the validity of exceptional clearances can be open to question. For example, suspects may admit to other crimes in exchange for leniency because they are unlikely to be prosecuted in the absence of evidence to corroborate their confessions, while the complex definition of the term may not always be strictly adhered to. Even without this uncertainty, there is a need to break down clearance rates into categories of crime. This is because the clear-up rates will vary markedly between the types of offence. By analysing the broken-down rates the police management is able to tell whether there has been a change in the crime mix. And this in turn enables 'much more meaningful comparisons' to be made between forces about the quality of crime detection work.

Much the same can be said for a variety of activities by government bodies. For instance, the book has a case study on Customs and Excise, which is also going through fundamental changes in the way it deals with the public and runs itself.

More controversial is measuring performance in education. And the book devotes a whole chapter to the subject. The authors acknowledge the difficulty of examining such socio-economic objectives as helping to promote the growth and development of the economy and improving access to higher personal incomes, and so focus on the 'operational objectives', such as providing 'well-resourced services in safe and suitable premises'.

In particular, they use the idea of the mission statement as a framework for measuring the effectiveness of a school or education authority's policies. It is, however, possible to go too far, the authors warn. 'Care has to be exercised that the cost of collection of all these permutations do not outweigh their usefulness . . . Performance measures do not in themselves provide solutions . . . They alert managers to the need to examine issues further.'

That said, the continuing financial squeeze is likely to create an ever-increasing demand for help in getting more out of less. Not just in the UK, but in other parts of the world, too. As Mr Palmer says: 'All governments are hard up.'

(Photograph omitted)