Councils are to be issued with scorecards laying bare how long they take to find adoptive parents for children in care.
Education Secretary Michael Gove said the move would "shine a light" on local authorities which had "let down" children by taking too long to place them with loving families.
It is part of an action plan for adoption published today which also includes plans to reduce the approval process for would-be adopters to six months.
Council leaders warned that the new scorecards would pit authorities against each other and prioritise "speed over quality".
But Mr Gove, who was himself adopted, said there was a clear case for "urgent and radical" reform and that councils would be expected to improve within months.
A child entering care will, on average, wait a year and nine months to move in with an adoptive family and the number being found new homes each year is in decline.
"For too long, children in care have been let down by local authorities and the family justice system," he said.
"I believe scorecards will shine a light on which authorities are doing well and which ones need to improve. Local authorities should be in no doubt that we expect to see improvements in the coming months.
"Quality placements are of paramount importance but there is no excuse for delay. We know that delay can be deeply damaging and every year a child waits there is less chance of being adopted.
"Some agencies and local authorities are already striking the right balance and this urgently needs to become the norm."
The scorecards - the first of which will be published within weeks - will feature three key indicators relating to authorities' performance on adoption:
:: The average time it takes for a child to be moved in with an adoptive family;
:: The proportion of children waiting longer than they should - including those still in care;
:: The average time it takes an authority to match a child with a family after a court has decided that adoption is the right course.
The Government is also to consult on a new six-month approval process for people wanting to adopt, as well as fast-track processes for people who have already adopted and approved foster-carers.
A national gateway for adoption, including a telephone helpline and website providing advice and information about becoming an adopter, is also supported by ministers "in principle", although details are yet to be fleshed out.
It will also be made easier for white couples to adopt black children, as announced last week by Prime Minister David Cameron, who criticised the "absurd barriers" to mixed-race adoption.
Mr Gove said today's action plan was "the first part of a radical wider programme of reform" to help children in care.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents town halls, warned of children being treated as "a commodity to be processed as fast as possible" and of prospective adopters being put off by misleading scorecards.
David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA's Children and Young People Board, said the score card system risked shifting the focus from the quality of placements to the speed of placements.
He said councils were already faced with a system that has five times more children waiting for adoption than adopters, adding: "We cannot afford to put prospective parents off if their council is wrongly deemed to be underperforming."
Andrew Flanagan, chief executive of the NSPCC, said the welfare of the child must be central to the reforms.
"This is a risk that a sole focus on speed means that this critical issue is sometimes overshadowed."
Matt Dunkley, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), said there was "a limit" to how much councils alone could achieve.
"Any attempts to improve performance of individual local authorities must take the performance of the wider system into account - without that, there is a limit to what local authorities can achieve."
Martin Narey, the Government's ministerial adviser on adoption, said the plan would effect a "radical reform" of adoption in England.
"I particularly welcome the approach to ethnicity and the long delays caused by current practice in seeking a perfect or partial ethnic match for an adopted child."