Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Measuring performance of local Councillors

Public sector performance indicators are something of a minefield as the National Indicator Set proves. They are costly and difficult to collect (sometimes not adequately available at all), not always representative of a job well done, and can get manipulated in horrific ways.

So why does anyone bother?

Well, performance indicators are exactly what they say on the tin – indicators. They are not a perfect measure of performance, but an indicator. And they are a lot better than nothing.

In measuring performance of local Councillors there may be differences, for example, in the type of enquiries that Councillors are asked to deal with (large, small, difficult and easy enquiries), but on average they will even out and provide an indication of workload. They cannot show how diligently a Councillor attends to an enquiry, or the quality of the outcome, but they will give an idea. Ditto meeting attendance, voting, etc.

In my area a computerized system is now used for Councillors to log enquiries, and details from the system are available on request under the Freedom of Information Act. However, it is optional to use the system and now that some of the information has been published several Councillors say that they do not use the system at all. They are effectively bypassing accountability. If this particular Performance Indicator was published as a national (or even local) league table then you might find they suddenly started to use it with more gusto; otherwise they look like shirkers.

Politics and all its power is an ideal hot-house for cheating the statistics in various ways. If I am prepared to cheat my caffeine challenge by eating chocolate, imagine what an elected politician is prepared to do to make themselves look better in the eyes of voters. Lambeth and their ghost libraries was a deliciously embarrassing example.

But my opinion, and that of many leading organisations, is that working hard to get performance indicators as indicative as possible of true performance, and to have good systems to track and publicize the results, does improve performance. If information relating to Councillors’ work were available on web sites more easily, instead of having to be requested and posted piecemeal in blogs, it would have a great deal more power. Voters would have better information to base their decisions on.

It is important to remember that performance indicators are a management tool, not an end in themselves. By that I mean they are one tool in the tool bag, to be used with care and backed up with other information as necessary. The weaknesses of performance indicators are often used as an argument not to use them (mostly by those who come off worst in the performance stats). Providing they are used sensibly they are extremely valuable and work as well in politics as they do in the private sector.


  1. Very interesting post.

    I think we do need greater transparency and openness to enable members of the public to undestand better what councillors do and to be able to compare performance.

    Obviously we have elections to enable members of the public to cast their verdict on individual councillors - a very direct form of performance management.

    Some people don't understand what the role of councillors is or for example that some of us combine council duties with full-time work. League tables clearly don't show everything and some council wards might generate more 'casework' than others etc so straight comparisons might not work.

    I don't object to my constituents having access to more information about the work I do on their behalf. We need to get away from the notion that politics is a clique or a club and encourage more openness and understanding on both sides.

    I am not in competition with other councillors I just try and do the best I can for residents I represent. That said, a little competition and public scrutiny can be a good thing if it helps keeps everyone a bit more on their toes!

  2. As a councillor, I have much sympathy with Cllr Benson's post, particularly the observation that some people don't understand the role of councillors. Sometimes this includes councillors themselves.

    The various acts of parliament which direct and empower councillors tend to define duties and responsibilities - the Local Government Act is a good one for that - but some also set standards by which councils can be assessed and open up opportunities for them to expand their role.

    I spend a lot of time dealing with problems which are either brought to me, or which I dig out for myself. Then I act as a post-box - via the clerk, who is the executive of the Council - with the various agencies which can be called on to deal with the issues. Much of my effort goes into managing expectations, especially in these times of financial stringency. Beyond that point, I have little influence on setting priorities or budgets for departments in the delivering agencies of the district and county councils. I am constrained by law as to how much I can ask Council to spend on certain services and facilities.
    I think any success criteria should be moderated by those types of influences - and that would make a very complex model.

    I echo Cllr Benson's manifesto - I do the best I can for the residents I represent, within the constraints imposed. What differentiates the good councillor from the rest is a willingness to seek actively to improve the wellbeing of the community. Measure that.