31 March 2009

Council newspaper/magazine

Idea: To substitute a hard copy biannual magazine with a quarterly ezine to registered residents.

Result: Savings of around £9,000 pa 

Leadership and follow up: Driven by the need for cost savings and a realisation that not all residents bother to read the magazine. So residents were given the opportunity six months in advance of the change to register to receive the magazine via e-mail.  If residents are unable to receive e-mail they can still request a hard copy

Thanks for this example

Enhancing ethnic access

Thanks for this example:

Idea: Providing access to ethnic minorities to our publications and services was delivered through an annual contract.  However, the usage levels were low resulting in a high cost per transaction (telephone translations, interpreting services etc).  The idea was to move to a "pay as you go" service with significant savings 

Result: Initial indications are a saving of £2,000 pa 

Leadership & follow up: Research by the Customer Service Unit identified alternative suppliers that were willing to supply a demand led service and one has been "appointed" from April 1st 2009.

This blog is working!

Just had someone from a large council in the phone saying he would be sending me some contributions for the blog (thank you). 

And also he said that he had browsed the blog and found a couple of ideas he was going to use in his own organisation. 

This is just the kind of thing I was hoping for!

Please feel free to add comments to the postings below - highlighting the ones that are useful and interesting to you.

Saving on mealtime costs

"Our local police* have made economies by negotiating subsidised meals with local retailers, such as Morrisons.  This means that for an area such as ours, covering large rural areas, there is no need to return to ‘base’ for meals and thus reduce fuel consumption or down time for patrol cars, with the additional benefit of visible policing in retail premises."

Thanks to North Hertfordshire District Council for this example

*Hertfordshire Police

Supporting the Voluntary Sector

"We make applications for CRB checks to our Council for Voluntary Service who can carry these out at a lower cost than statutory agencies such as the police, but the fees they receive, a small profit for them, pays for their employee to work every afternoon as well helping the voluntary sector."

Thanks to North Hertfordshire District Council for this example

Collaboration & double benefits

"We have negotiated sharing our grants database through a commercial organisation.  By allowing the CVS rep to come along and log in at our offices, we were not only able to save them £1250 cost per year, which we would have funded otherwise, but they were also willing to use that experienced person to search grants for the council – a double benefit for us both."

Thanks to North Hertfordshire District Council for this example

Mobile working

"We have implemented mobile working, sending benefits assessors etc to the homes of our customers, meaning it removes the need for them to travel, means documents can be checked in the home rather than sent or brought to the office and officers’ reports are sent back to base electronically.  That has already saved us around £70,000, no small amount."

Thanks for this example from North Hertfordshire District Council 

Paperless ordering

"We have moved to a paperless ordering system, approving orders on line, which has reduce paper, print and mail costs significantly – that is hosted by the IDeA as part of their marketplace project."

Thanks for this example from North Hertfordshire District Council

30 March 2009

Weigh less!

"South Beds District Council (SBDC) had an innovative efficiency saving from the Handy Van Team where traditionally they collected obsolete materials and took them to a disposal area, where the supplier charged each van a cost based on the weight at the weighbridge. The Team negotiated a deal where SBDC would fit 3 vehicles on the weighbridge and therefore reduced the cost by 1/3. 

This has lead to efficiency savings for the Council which has exceeded £10,000 per year."

Thanks for this example.

26 March 2009

The Big Switch Off

This Saturday (28 March 2009) is 'Earth Hour' when everyone is encouraged to switch off lights and other electricial equipment for one hour at 8.30pm local time. http://www.earthhour.org/home/ has more information.

I have also received the following from Reading Borough Council (thanks to Ben Burfoot their Sustainability Manager):

"The Big Switch off took place on the weekend beginning Jan 30th and involved council employees switching off all unnecessary equipment on Friday evening before leaving for the weekend. In addition this year it was opened to businesses to join in the challenge 15 local businesses took part many of them making significant energy savings.

The event gained greater coverage due to support from the radio station Reading 107.

The Big Switch Off served as a reminder to council staff to turn off equipment for the weekend. Staff at the civic centre and Hexagon achieved a 13 per cent drop in out of hours electricity and there was an average 20 per cent drop in electricity use in leisure centres. 

Businesses were asked to take meter readings before and after the weekend which meant they and we were able to monitor success. For example local company Designation used 23 per cent less electricity over the weekend than usual by turning off computers, printers and other equipment on Friday night. 

Since the last Big Turn Off two years ago, when the council achieved 22 per cent savings in electricity use in the civic centre, an ongoing series of energy efficiency measures have been put in place with the result that our out of hours drop in use was smaller in the 2009 initiative. 

In order to keep up the momentum the council is challenging businesses and individuals to switch off for Earth Hour on March 28th for one hour to send a message to global leaders to take action on climate change. The council will be repeating the Big Switch Off that weekend in addition. More information about this event can be found on the website" www.reading.gov.uk/earthhour

Procurement of a new Enveloping machine

Idea: To replace the 10+ year old enveloping machine with a new future-proofed version.                           

Results: After exhaustive research including meetings with external companies and demonstrations of various machines we secured a deal for a new enveloping machine complete with extra features (electronic height adjustable table, extra feeders, special feeder kit) for no more than the original amount budgeted. The result is a much improved service for internal customers - jobs completed in less than half the time and at half the cost, larger jobs can now be processed, a variety of formats (e.g. different sized envelopes and leaflets) can now be run through the machine, and the machine is future-proof and complete with the latest technology including OMR and bar coding.:                     

Leadership: Office Support team leader and Senior Office Support assistant proposed the need for a new machine, conducted the research and secured the optional extras at no extra cost.

Lessons Learnt: Updating essential technology can represent significant savings.

Contact: Paul Wood for further information (Email: pwood@winchester.gov.uk)

Thanks to Winchester City Council for this example.

Use of Touch Screen Technology

The idea: Idea to change from the old Eureka time recording programme to a new Touch Screen package. Eureka – involved writing down how long each job took on paper then inputting all data at the end of the month using complicated codes, for Accountancy to then recharge accordingly. Touch Screen – a programme accessible from a touch screen computer and desktop PCs. Allows officers to input data as and when they complete jobs, therefore allowing for more accurate time-keeping, and a less time-consuming system. 

Results: The touch screen system has cut the amount of administration time significantly for each officer and for the team leader who can at the click of a button, run a report on a variety of different data. The touch screen also includes a dashboard feature giving a daily snapshot of the work undertaken in office support. It also is used to record statistical data including the quantity of incoming and outgoing post, and a postage stamp balance sheet. 

Leadership: It was agreed that Eureka was taking too much time to complete and with Office Support being heavily involved the Retriever project time needed to be saved where ever possible. In a sit-down meeting between the Head of Customer Services, the Office Support team leader and Senior Office Support Assistant the idea was hashed out, IMT were then brought on board to design the software. 

Lessons Learnt: Use of new technology can generate efficiencies and save time 

Contact: Paul Wood for further details. (Email:pwood@winchester.gov.uk)

Thanks to Winchester City Council for this example.

BT One Bill.

The idea: To work with BT to replace the many bills that the Council receives monthly and quarterly for each of its telephones with one single monthly itemised bill supplied either by email or on disk.

Results: Reduction in the amount of time taken in administering the payments for each telephone bill and the cost of making the making payment. Reduction in the amount of paper used for the bills. Estimated annual saving of about £1,500

Leadership: This idea was initiated and led by the IM&T Team whose job it is to process and pay telephone invoices.

Lessons Learnt: That by working with suppliers, cost savings and efficiencies can be generated.

Contact: Simon Howson, Corporate Business Manager, (Email: showson@winchester.gov.uk

Thanks to Winchester City Council for this example.

Planning Public Notices in Winchester

The idea: To replace the printing onto regular paper and then laminating of planning public notices that are displayed outside a property to inform the public of a planning application with direct printing onto durable paper that can be used outside with no deterioration of quality or legibility of text. 

Results: Reduction in the amount of time taken to print and laminate the public notices. The saving in cost by reducing the need to purchase expensive laminating pouches. There was a minimal cost increase in the cost of the paper. 

Leadership: This idea was initiated and led by the Planning Team whose job it is to produce the notices. 

Lessons Learnt: That there are more efficient and cost effective ways of carrying out some of the most simple of tasks 

Contact: Simon Howson, Corporate Business Manager, (Email: showson@winchester.gov.uk

Thanks to Winchester City Council for this example.

Two more examples from the New Forest

"Copier Paper/Furniture – These savings resulted through entering into joint procurement arrangements with Test Valley Borough Council for both photocopier paper and furniture.

Mobile Phone Contract – This saving was generated by renegotiation of the Council’s contract for mobile phones."

Thanks to New Forest District Council for these examples.

Catering Administration

Here is an example provided by New Forest District Council (thank you):

"Savings of £16k resulted from the deletion of a catering administration post, with duties being absorbed by other employees. The element of the saving relating to the Council’s staff canteen (pantry) was £3380 with the balance relating to other establishments, principally leisure facilities"

24 March 2009

No longer...

As mentioned before, I have been receiving a number of emails in response to my enquiries for examples to put on this blog. I am very happy with the responses so far - it is clear that innovation and a creative spirit is thriving in many public service organisations. Ideas for improvement are bubbling up and being taken forward by the people who can.

But just occasionally I get an email which deflates me a little (although for the record I soon bounce back). I have had one or two which have said something like the "Council no longer runs a Staff Suggestion scheme". My reaction is twofold:
  • How come - what happened to the previous one? What went wrong - could nothing be done to keep it alive?
  • And from where does the council now expect the ideas to emerge?
It is interesting to contrast this with examples below (and soon) above this posting. 

A regular cornucopia!

One council sent me a long list of the many suggestions made as part of their improvement scheme. Some of these are being implemented, others about to be and some still yet to be considered by their scheme panel. I reprint a selection of them here in recognition of the energy and enthusiasm for improvement that this council has evidently generated: 

  1. Using water saving devices in toilet cisterns
  2. Reducing the number of waste bins per office
  3. Using the telephone holding system for advertising/promotion instead of playing music
  4. Monies from parking fines on taxi ranks go to Licensing budget
  5. Hold a bumper sale of surplus council items
  6. Charge for the replacement of lost bus passes
  7. All mailing lists should be split into internal and external recipients to avoid internal recipients being sent mail by external post
  8. Have one day a week with no internal emails
  9. Create themed guided walking tours of the town
  10. Provision of more recycling facilities in Council offices
  11. Include ‘Please consider the environment before printing this email’ at end of emails
  12. Make an administration charge for cheque payments that bounce, especially in respect of taxi/private hire drivers
  13. Selling off items of confiscated equipment that the Council takes possession of in noise nuisance cases
  14. Chevron style parking on larger roads and charging e.g. £1 per day for using the car parks out of the tourist season
  15. Installation of solar panels on council buildings 
  16. Using waste paper bins as the default bin for recycled paper and each team having one bin for non-recyclable waste
  17. Promote a culture of organising and running training courses for other local authorities as a way of funding our training 
  18. Promote NHS stop smoking services, smoking helpline and Together Programme more proactively
  19. Reduce number of offices required through working from home and hotdesking.
  20. Reduce number of receptions.
  21. The new Local Area Agreement should take the opportunity to include countywide performance targets with financial reward as in the 2003-06 PSA agreement 
  22. Install movement detectors so that lights work automatically according to whether there are staff in an office, or install a cut out system after flexitime ends (already being done)
  23. All appropriate printers to have the double sided print option as a default setting to save paper (already being done)
  24. Eliminate lease cars and offer a cash alternative. Where a leased car is required, the council requires that these be dual powered/electric powered (hybrid) vehicles (already being done)
  25. Provision of more recycling facilities in Council offices
  26. Remove at least one large refuse bin from behind the Town Hall and replace with recycle bins 
  27. Stop sending mail shots with pay slips
  28. Produce a council calendar
  29. Chipping felled tree branches and shrubs for footpaths & mulch 
  30. Issue salary slips only when amount differs by £5 or more
  31. Have one central location on Intranet for procedure guides
  32. Have ‘recycle for xxxx’ & logo printed on envelopes
  33. Reduce temperature of hot water to sinks
  34. Use biro refills instead of ordering whole pen
  35. Send email version of termination form to Payroll
  36. That the document image processing system currently used by local taxation be used by the Council as a whole
  37. That a way be investigated into ensuring that the water flushing for urinals happens only when premises in use and not 24 hours a day, seven days a week
  38. That a consortium of bank staff be set up with other Councils 
  39. That staff appraisals are programmed for January and February and training plans submitted by the end of February so that the training budget can be allocated by the end of March each year
  40. Instead of sending a remittance advice for officers expenses through the post, email it instead
  41. That the Council leases a suitable vehicle which can be driven to many locations in residential areas throughout the town and act as a mobile ‘bring site’ 
  42. That the radiators in the corridors at the Town Hall have thermostatic valves added to allow better control over the heating 
  43. That staff are encouraged to turn off lights in meeting rooms once they are vacated i.e. with extra signage.
  44. That the notice board in the reception area at the Town Hall be replaced with an electronic TV style screen/monitor similar to that in the Registrars reception to display meetings etc
  45. That in areas where people are constantly walking in and out i.e. toilets, kitchen areas, store cupboards, that instead of a light being kept on all the time, light sensors be installed 
  46. Mobility Scooter Drag Racing to ‘tie in’ with the ‘Go Fast’ event.
  47. Set up the property title reference number base so that when title reference numbers are required they are recorded, then the next time it is looked up, the Council need only pay £3.00 instead of £6.00 (Being investigated)
  48. That all waste paper be treated as confidential waste
  49. A free book exchange library
  50. To coincide with the opening of the Cultural Centre run a competition for staff to submit a piece of artwork that could be displayed in one of the galleries
  51. Have a VAT calculator on the Intranet so staff can input their gross and the net and VAT is worked out for them. We could also have a section to input what category the item purchased is under to insure that it is a vatable cost
  52. That staff with mobile phones on the same network make free calls to each other and mobile phone numbers are displayed on the Intranet.
  53. That instead of having a photo ID/warrant card, swipe card and name badge, these are amalgamated into one card
  54. Could junk email be stopped at the post room and returned enmasse with a delete from mailing list request.
  55. Provision of online resources i.e. email, intranet, internet and other services in meeting rooms.
  56. Instead of the Council leasing vans it would be more beneficial to buy them.
  57. More students could be used to fill posts at less cost.
  58. Use alcohol gel hand sanitizer instead of soap, water, paper towels or dryers in toilets and kitchens.
  59. Use only envelopes without windows and print addresses onto envelopes or labels instead so they can be recycled.

Centre for Public Innovation

These people seem like they have lots of good ideas and they offer assistance to public services wishing to be more innovative. (A colleague from a London Borough suggested they were worth contacting.)

23 March 2009

Safety & mirrors

"Recent serious criminal incidents in one of our local car parks had led to a security team being employed to patrol the area.  However the layout of one car park stairwell was such that it did not allow great visibility either on the stairwell itself or through the doors connecting to the parking levels. We therefore introduced mirrors on each of the levels to allow users to see what was round corners and placed visibility panels in the doors to the parking levels. 

Ceilings throughout the car park were simultaneously painted in highly reflective white to enhance overall light levels.  Since these installations people have confirmed they feel less intimidated, and more safe."


Win-win-win cardboard recycling

"During a recent inspection of a local food manufacturer, one member of staff noticed piles and piles of cardboard packaging waste, although this was not part of their job they advised the company to contact a recycling company to take the packaging away.  Having researched recycling options the company e-mailed the council to say thanks for the initial idea. They are likely to save between £15,000 and £20,000 per year by recycling their waste cardboard.  

By being in the right place at the right time, by asking questions and making connections between two issues, we were able to get a very positive result from what started out as a routine inspection."


Saving on cheques

"Traditionally the Council paid its suppliers by cheque. Taking into account the time spent printing and enveloping each payment, the cost of the cheque stationery and the envelope in which it was posted, as well as the actual price of the stamp and the fee from the bank, every time we paid a supplier it would cost roughly 53p. 

What we've now done is moved to BACS as our default method of payment. In the past there were a couple of things which put us off doing this. Firstly, there would be a need to contact our suppliers to find out their bank details and convince them that electronic payment was the way forward. Secondly, in order to minimise subsequent queries, we thought that we would still post remittance advices to the suppliers telling them that payment was on its way - this, of course, would negate some of the saving. 

However, times have moved on and most suppliers now include bank details on their invoices and request electronic payment. Very often email addresses are printed on invoices as well. All this meant that we could readily move over to BACS payment for very many of our suppliers, with remittance advices sent by email. Obtaining the missing information from other suppliers was simply a question of making a few phone calls. We are now making 83% of our supplier payments by BACS and emailing the remittances. In a year we make around 11,000 payments, so we will now be saving around £4,000 annually"


20 March 2009

Range of savings & improvements from Amber Valley Borough Council

1. Deployment of Voice over IP telephony at the Council's 3 remote sites £2,012 per annum

2. Replacement of telephony system - reduction in maintenance costs for a more functional system £3,040 per annum

3. Maintenance of printers - rationalisation of brand of printer to ensure reliable model and minimum number of cartridges and spare parts are required to be held in stock £6,500 per annum

4. Increase in the number of electronic payments received resulting in a reduction in the number of security cash collections £6,200 per annum

5. Introduction of TFT screens - reduction in power usage £1,230 per annum

6. Re-design of flexi time system administration arrangements to reduce the volume of changes required £5,900 per annum (Non cashable)

7. Re-design of the flexi time system to reduce the time taken to input the changes required £3,400 per annum (Non cashable)

Thanks for these examples.

19 March 2009

Saving postage and time on minutes

A local council officer gave me this example (thanks):

"Our service recently made modest savings by changing our despatch procedure for Committee minutes. Until recently these were posted out within two weeks of a meeting taking place. We have now arranged for the minutes to be attached to the next meeting’s agenda, saving us postage and staff time. The Minutes are still made available via our website as soon as they are ready."

Emailing people - top tips

Given that email overload is a big problem for many working in the public services - here are some 'top tips' from Steve McQuade of Lichfield District Council:
  • When replying to emails - put your answers next to the questions in the original email - this saves time describing which question you are answering - indeed a function can be switched on such that your additions come with your initials automatcially
  • Use the subject line of emails to indicate the response (if any) that you want. So a 'fyi' in the title is just that - for your information - no reply required.
  • When making an appointment with someone outside the organisation - use 'outlook' to place it in their diary too - as 'outlook' has this functionality. This means you can track their response too. (Very useful with partnership working)
(Thanks Steve)

Any more top tips like this?

This is all about making the most of what you have - functionality and resources.

FoI - How to respond with triage

I have been emailing (invoking the Freedom of Information Act) a few councils of late and asking them for examples that might be posted here - I have had some very useful responses (thanks) - which I am beginning to upload. Some councils have responded with an acknowledging email informing me of the Freedom of Information guidelines around availble information, the 20 working day rule and so forth. I await their answers in due course.

Others have replied saying that my request falls outside FoI because it is not specific enough. I have then responded with some further options including some more specific requests.

But a couple of people have notably come back to me and said - do you really wish to invoke FoI - is there some other way this can be done? In effect, these people are operating what I would call a triage system. 

As one person put it to me "You asked for one idea under FOI. The one I would relay is that on receipt of an FOI enquiry I try to speak to the person making the FOI request to ascertain why they have made the request under FOI. In many cases they do not realise they are serving legal notice on the Council and that as many FOI contacts are seeking to win business it is not generally a good idea to use such methods as a means of introduction.  Generally they tend to withdraw the request after a friendly chat and after I verbally give them what they require. This has saved myself a lot of time and I think helped the other parties. Using FOI can get peoples 'back up' especially when they would freely volunteer the information"

I post this here to acknowledge this approach - and note the elegant way in which this  triage idea can save a lot of time and energy.

I wonder how many other examples there are out there that use the triage idea...?

Annual Efficiency Statements - a good place to start!

A useful link which provides information about the Annual Efficiency Statements provided by each local authority.


"Annual Efficiency Statements - 2007-08 Backward Look

As part of the local government efficiency agenda, during the 2004 Spending Review period (2005-06 to 2007-08), all councils in England have been required to submit Annual Efficiency Statements to Communities and Local Government. These submissions were formed of two parts; the Forward and Backward look statements.
  • The Forward Look was for authorities to set out their general strategy for making efficiency gains; an estimate of the value of new gains expected to be achieved during the forthcoming financial year; and the key actions planned to realise them.
  • The Backward Look was for authorities to set out the value of ongoing gains sustained from previous years; the value of new efficiency gains actually achieved during that financial year; and the actions that were undertaken to release them.
The documents that are published here are the 2007-08 Backward Look statements and spreadsheets which set out the efficiency gains achieved in each sector by each local authority and the quality crosschecks provided to demonstrate that service quality has not deteriorated as a result. The published items are unedited by the Department and the results are not subject to review or endorsement by the Department."

The information is presented in fairly dense and not easily searchable form - but there is a lot there.

For example Adur Council reported "Long term agreement with Leisure Trust to manage Council services at a reducing cost with no diminution in service" whilst Worthing Council reports in corporate services "The efficiencies for 2007/08 initiatives totalled £95,246 (all cashable)and comprised the following initiatives : Financial Services Staffing restructure (£48,000), reduced staff advertising (£13,551), reduced contribution to insurance reserves(£4,750), introduction of electronic printing means (£4,686), and savings on legal services (£2,846), strategic planning (£9,413) and Fraud Investigations (£12,000). Additionally, ongoing savings totalling £136,436 (£11,983 non cashable) were derived from previous year schemes, including joint chief executive arrangements (£6,794), insurance premium reductions (£24,925), interest from investment of proceeds from asset sales (£101,552), reduced use of agency staff (£4,956), IEG savings (£23,829), and treasury management consultancy (£235) - offset by unsustained gain from 2004/05 scheme relating to senior management restructuring (£25,855)." 

Interesting both councils now share a Chief Executive "Of key significance in 2007/08 was the decision taken in July 2007 by both Worthing and Adur councils to forge ahead with partnership working, cemented by a single officer structure with effect from 1 April 2008. This will engender further savings in 2008/09."

So if you want to check out your own or another council - this is a good place to start!

18 March 2009

E-Christmas Card

Another suggestion from the West Berkshire Council suggestion scheme:

"Instead of sending paper Christmas cards from Chairman – send e- Christmas card – savings to be made on Officer time, printing and production costs." The panel agreed: "Agreed this is an excellent idea although the Chairman will need to approve it.  Suggested that the savings generated could be donated to the Chairman’s charity.  The competition for schools can still run but the winning drawing will be scanned onto the E-Christmas card instead of printed." 

Bikes for Work

Again - another story from West Berkshire Council:

"A scheme currently run by Halfords which enables employees to purchase a bike at up to 50% off and pay for the bike out of their salary before the tax is deducted.  This would contribute to the Cleaner and Greener agenda and be of benefit to the staff personally." The reviewing "Panel supported the idea but would also like to see if more local businesses would be willing/able to partake in the scheme.  No financial support required from the Council but it has a great advantage to employees." With the result that "Insurers being consulted – if response favourable, this could form part of the Green Travel Plan due out for consultation soon"

Double Sided Printing - to reduce the paper mountain

This was a suggestion from the West Berkshire Council staff suggestion scheme. ICT were already on the case and "are assessing usage of all printers across WBC.  Duplex printers are already in place in some services – it was agreed that the duplex option would be set to mandatory on these to encourage proper use or the printers and save paper.  Once the assessment is complete, the services with largest demand for printing, such as electoral services, benefits and exchequer etc will be provided with duplex printers first.  Also ICT will be replacing old equipment when it breaks with duplex printers where possible." 

(Excerpt from log of the suggestion scheme - received in response to a direct enquiry to the Council)

12 March 2009

21st Century Target Setting

I wrote this article nearly six years ago - it still seems valid - particularly in the light current trends to move away from huge numbers of top down imposed targets. I hope the links still work.


Many public service leaders and commentators are expressing increasing disquiet about the current approach to target setting for the public services.

David Batty writing in the Guardian (26/4/02) about the Victoria Climbié Enquiry entitled his piece ‘Performance targets compromise child protection’. Onora O’Neill speaking in the BBC Reith Lectures last year said ‘our revolution in accountability has not reduced attitudes of mistrust, but rather reinforced a culture of suspicion… we are galloping towards central planning by performance indicators reinforced by obsessions with blame and compensation’. A Telegraph headline of 19 December 2001 said ‘NHS patients were duped in waiting list fiddle’. Simon Caulkin in the Observer (5/8/01) declared that management ‘being tied to set goals is so often meaningless’ and can ‘lead to disaster’.

Dr Ian Bogle, retiring from five years as Chair of the BMA in June 2003 said 'I am absolutely appalled by the cheating going on and by the Government having put human beings in such a position that they feel that to preserve their jobs [they must do it]. The pressures are obscene and the Government should be ashamed of itself for the consequences.'[1]

And recently (and strikingly) James Strachan the new Chairman of the Audit Commission went on record to say to MPs: "The problem we have faced time and time again is the slavish devotion to targets, many of which have not been set very intelligently. It's a surefire way of not getting improvement in public services. People see targets set by government, monitored by them, and with responsibility for their validation. There is a real danger that people will not believe them," [2]

It seems therefore that people are becoming increasingly aware that the current performance management regime is not delivering the hoped for improvements in outcomes desired by the Government, the staff and managers who work in the public services and, indeed, the public themselves. This article is about another way – a way whereby the various levels of Government can still hold the public services to account for delivering results – as they most surely should – whilst tackling some of the difficulties with the current approach. As the voices for change become louder – it is vitally important that we do not ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and reject target setting in all its forms. What we need is an evolution of thinking & practice – although that is not to say that some of the new ideas necessary should not be radical in their own right.

Targets and performance management are now so pervasive and influence at a very deep level how we conceptualise achievement in the public services – it is difficult to remember – what was the problem that performance management was meant to be solution for? This article will begin with an overview of the arguments against target setting and performance management in its current form. Further into the article, the way forward to a 21st Century form of target setting is outlined.

It is hoped that this article will not only add to the clamour for a change in performance management practice but also offer some practical ideas for what is now required.

The key arguments 

To summarise briefly the key arguments against target setting and performance management in its current form:

  • Targets are rarely set with anything other than a nod toward a statistical analysis of trends in performance of the system or service in question and there is little awareness of natural and special causes of variation in performance day-to-day, month-to-month, year on year. This can lead to reacting to changes that are merely part of an ordinary variation and sometimes not reacting when one is called for. Also a lack of dynamic statistical analyses can generate unrealistic targets.
  • Outcomes are difficult to measure – by their very nature – so instead performance indicators (PI’s) are defined and targets set accordingly. These PI’s then become the objects for achievement rather than the outcomes themselves.
  • Partly because targets are usually imposed (rather than developed in collaboration with the service providers and users) and partly by their very nature, targets can unfortunately foster ignoble or perverse attempts to hit the targets by whatever means are required (as past news stories around hospital waiting lists would appear to illustrate).
  • Target setting and performance management only works when the system that is (or is not) delivering to target performance is understandable and understood such that interventions can be made that will change performance in the right direction. Without such understanding – requirements to improve performance can degenerate into ineffective exhortations to work harder, faster or better etc. 
  • Target setting and performance management introduces a level of fear into work – a fear which can damage service delivery. Sometimes target setting is perceived as a form of bullying. When targets are not met – it is unfortunately too often the case that individuals are held culpable when in most cases it is the system itself, which has failed (in usually many places). Targets tend to foster ‘quick fixes’ rather than system (or ‘stay’) fixes.
  • By focussing public servants and services upon targets and inspecting or appraising them against those targets – the targets become hugely important. When the targets do not reflect the local needs and wants of the public – target setting can distract people from giving the levels of service that they wish to give and the public want.
  • Target setting and performance management can become a substitute for visionary and inspirational leadership. Management can too easily descend into ‘bean counting’ the PI’s and ‘double thinking’ leadership that pretends that all the targets really do matter – when in truth only a few key ones are of critical importance.
  • Inspecting services against targets is too late, expensive and ineffective – it is in effect allowing services to deliver ineffective services rather than encouraging them to create systems for continuous improvement. Targets can foster ‘downstream’ measures of quality whereas it is much more effective to focus ‘upstream’ and assess where in the chain of actions things go right or wrong.
  • Targets are by their very nature time focussed – often on a very short timescale. Most of the systems and issues wrestled with by the public services take years – if not decades – to come about. Improvement needs to work on that same timescale. In other words it’s a bit like having a speedometer that tells you what speed you were doing half an hour ago.
  • The resources that go into setting targets and then responding to being held to account for the achievement of those targets are all resources that could be spent on delivering services and achieving outcomes. Balancing quite how many resources should go into setting and assessing against targets is a very hard task.
  • Target setting and performance management often pitch one organisation against another, one individual against another when partnership and collaboration would be a much more effective strategy. Many local partnerships – endeavouring to make ‘joined up government’ work on the ground – find that the targets set by different parts of Whitehall make their task harder rather than easier.
  • People – the public, the public service professionals, the politicians - know all these flaws above and as a consequence – because of the overarching importance attached to targets in their current form – become dissociated from their work and often lose their inherent ability to be passionate, creative and committed to their work and what they are trying to achieve. 

A way forward

This article is not just be about what is wrong –set out below are some practical proposals about what needs to happen to deliver sustainable social results, continuous improvement in those results, value for money and accountability. These proposals have been assembled into a 20 point plan for change:

  1. There must a more widespread use of statistical process control[3] and general statistical methods to really understand how public service systems operate. (At the very least – matrices of performance data with more than nine cells should be banned in favour of performance data being presented graphically.)
  2. The aim in monitoring performance should be to understand and seek to control variation in performance – as far as is possible in the complex systems that contribute to social outcomes. It is vital to avoid responding to variations which trend analysis shows are merely ‘ordinary’ variation and to ensure there is a response to ‘special’ causes of variation.
  3. When considering what may be causing the variations in social results, practices need to be boosted that affirm the need to search truly creatively and rigorously – without (moral, historical, political etc) assumptions. Coupled to this is must be stressed that aiming for ‘what works’ is not a utilitarian recipe for focussing only on ends and forgetting the means to get there – often the public remember the means far more than the ends!
  4. There needs to be far more education for the practitioners, managers, politicians and media in understanding variation and system improvement.
  5. Government and management at all levels need to involve practitioners, users and other key stakeholders far more, in the search for PI’s that come closer to assessing progress towards desired for outcomes
  6. We need processes / events / conferences / meetings / written communication / website bulletin boards to achieve much greater understanding and commitment to the outcomes being sought
  7. Key leaders need to assert every opportunity to emphasise that PI’s are indicators – nothing more nothing less!
  8. The balance between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ target setting needs to shift more towards trusting and allowing the front line organisations – who are delivering the outcomes – to set their own targets. They must then be held to account for meeting their own targets and being committed to continuous improvement, contributing to outcomes and putting in place leadership and systems that deliver ever better results for their users and other stakeholders.
  9. More research is needed to help each system to understand itself – informed by statistical understanding of variations in performance, the wit & experience of all those involved in providing the service and comparisons to other organisations. Under the title of evidence based practice – more is needed to find out just what are the actual mechanisms or interventions that actually deliver results. What are the differences in practice that really deliver different (and better) results?
  10. When anyone – as a politician, manager or practitioner – intervenes in system, it is vital to understand what are the aims and evaluate the result against this. Knowing whether the result was achieved or not is also not enough – one has to understand why it was or was not achieved – reflective practice must be the order of the day. This is as much a proposal for government ministers as it is for doctors as it is for waste recycling managers as it is for crown court judges. Everyone needs to know (and have measures to validate self knowledge) – ‘is what I am doing working and indeed – am I doing it better than last year’?
  11. It must never be forgotten that probably most of the systems that deliver social results are extraordinarily complex and it is rarely the case that one individual (the senior manager or director or middle manager) has all the knowledge required to make the best possible decision. The ‘manager’s right to manage’ should be interpreted as the manager’s right to ensure the system is well managed – by all those involved. In our increasingly complex world, participative management is not a ‘nice to do’ but a ‘need to do’. Whole system approaches need to be more widely used.
  12. To repeat and emphasise one of Deming’s (see the acknowledgements below for a reference) fourteen points – drive out fear! In a workplace – fear can lead towards unforeseen and negative consequences.
  13. Everyone knows that quick fixes do not work – just as it is widely known a rush DIY job will eventually (if not sooner than that) come round to haunt the DIYer. Leaders must do all that they can to encourage the use intelligence, resources and skills and so engender a culture of practice that is increasingly and robustly working towards stay fix approaches to improvement being the usual approach.
  14. There needs to be more recognition that often positive social outcomes cannot be measured in only quantitative ways – a person, a community, a town or country might just feel or look different. At a subjective level – it might be recognised – but at an objective level it cannot be bottled or counted. Simply people saying – ‘its better round here now’ – might be the most profound result that could have been achieved.  In other words our indicators of performance and achievement must be a balance of the qualitative and quantitative.
  15. We need far more hands on inspirational leadership from every echelon of the public service – leadership that co-creates a vision of the results we need and the commitment to achieve these – working together across the divides between national and local government, different agencies, the statutory and voluntary sectors and (most importantly) between the public themselves and the public service practitioners and managers.
  16. Often far too many resources are put into making small improvements in existing service delivery systems where what is required a radical overhaul and replacement – where quality and a profound commitment is built in from the start – rather than bolted on at the end. We need more courage to stop investing in ‘tweaking’ and inspecting existing organisations and more investing in designing new and imaginative forms of service delivery – co-designed with the public, underpinned by electronic means of service delivery and run on the energy of public service commitment.
  17. While the argument about whether targets work or not will rage on well past this article, it is now well established that short term targets do not work very well at all. The society that we have now is the product of generations and historical trends – there are no short term methods for the sustainable reduction in gun crime (for example). Obviously Governments are driven to improve matters – and are held to account for delivering those improvements – but the promises made need to be visionary and improvements in crime, education, health, the environment etc – all take time. The media in particular needs to understand this.
  18. Whatever efforts we put into system and service improvement, we must measure the benefits of those efforts. The resources consumed by preparing for and responding to inspections need to be measured. The time it takes to measure progress against targets needs to be measured. The amount of resources used to analyse the system and deliver stay fix improvements also needs to be audited. But above all – public service organisations need to have far more robust systems for assessing the costs of not investing in improvement – as these costs are often overlooked and skew the appraisal of whether it is worth investing in a new form of service delivery or system improvement.
  19. Problems ensue when different parts of Whitehall impose targets that do not add up on the ground. As many frontline practitioners know – delivering genuinely joined up services on the ground is seriously hampered by the apparent lack of coordination at the most senior levels of Government. Efforts are being made (the Social Exclusion Unit stands proud in this respect as mentioned above) – but efforts need to be redoubled again and again.
  20. Finally there needs to be ways to move beyond ‘bean counting’ and beyond the presumption that targets can whip the public services into shape. All dimensions of the public services need to pursue 
  • measurement that helps services to improve - demonstrably
  • leadership that inspires such improvement
  • an end to parochialism
  • supporting the public services – with all the energy and commitment of those who work in them
  • really, really listening to the public and acting on what their informed judgments are telling us about what they want improved and how to go about it


This piece has not been written as an academic exploration of the pros and cons of target setting and its associated performance management protocols, referenced to books and journals. It has been written in somewhat polemic terms to carry on and ignite more the debate about targets and their value to the public.

Old fashioned accountability around annual reports was never enough. Target setting of the kinds we are appear to be suffering from now are not working. We now need a third way – as outlined in the 20 point plan above. 

Jon Harvey

30 June 2003


Much of this analysis above is not new and can be traced to the work of W. Edwards Deming. Deming was one the key progenitors of the modern quality movement and remains hugely influential to this day. An internet search on his name will yield numerous websites dedicated to communicating his philosophy as set out in his is famous ’14 Points’ (see Out of the Crisis, 1986).

[3] See ‘SPC in the Office’ by Mal Owen & John Morgan. (June 2000) Greenfield Publishing; ISBN: 0952332841) for an accessible explanation of SPC and how to apply it to performance.

11 March 2009

Two ideas from joined up justice

Graffiti Removal

Criminal Justice agencies moved into a new Justice Centre in Warwickshire where they are collocated, this has lead to many significant measurable benefits, however, there has been some other significant and unforeseen benefits. A Police Inspector on his way to work early in the morning noticed that numerous street signs had been subject to graffiti. Since working at the Centre he has learnt about the un paid work scheme run from the centre by Probation for offenders to undertake work in the community. He contacted their manager and told him about the graffiti, before the end of the day the graffiti was removed by offenders as part of the unpaid work scheme at no cost and prevented a spiral of decline in the neighbourhood.. 

Shared Resources

On moving into the Centre other agencies such as Probation and Youth Offending Service became aware that the video link between the Courts, Prisons and remand Centres were not fully utilised, as a result of the multi agency arrangements, Probation and other agencies have been able to utilise the facility to interview offenders in prison, thus saving time and money in travelling to interview them in Prison and on Remand

Encouraging staff to learn about the resources and services used by other similar agencies enables more efficient ways of working and solving problems.

(With thanks to Richard Lyttle who provided these examples: Richard.Lyttle@warwickshire.pnn.police.uk)

WHY this blog - as well as the what...

I woke up this morning wondering if any readers of this blog (hallo!) wonder
why I created this blog. I hope I have made it clear what this blog is about - but perhaps not the why...

I guess it is because I am generally fed up with the focus on big initiatives and massive reengineering projects and wholescale restructuring as being the answers to better results. Instead I take the view that within almost all organisations are people with ideas for improvement urgently wanting to be heard. 

But it seems that these organisations would rather hire expensive consultants / programme managers / high flying executives to come in and do improvement to the organisation. The implicit beliefs underlying this are that we need people from outside (or at the most senior echelon) to have all the big ideas.

It seems to me that the most important ingredient in success for any organisation - large or small - is motivation. This is not just the motivation to turn up, or indeed the motivation to do good professional job. The kind of motivation I am talking about is the desire to think - how can we do this better, how can we deliver even more to those we serve, what do I and my colleagues have to do to achieve even more than yesterday? This requires raw unstoppable energy.

If organisations focus on bringing in outside experts, or appointing new and expensive senior managers - I think this kind of motivation is neutralised or at the very least it is not nurtured. At the worst - people are turned off and will maybe even seek to sabotage the organisation or harm it in some way.

I know I am not alone in thinking this - but maybe I and my fellow conspirators against the 'bring in the expensive experts' approach to organisational development can be accused of being naive. Obviously I don't think so - but this is probably the crux of the matter. I declare I have an optimistic view of people. I think most people, given the right conditions, default to be being creative, clever, enthusiastic and committed. But given the wrong conditions, all of us can become cynical, demotivated, dull and tedious.

And so this is why I wanted to create this blog (although occasionally I will insert the odd reflection such as the procurement rant below, to add some of my spice!)

I wanted a blog that would celebrate the small ideas - the small ideas (that can easily become the big ideas too) that come from the ordinary people in organisations - the people whose voices and ideas deserve and demand to be heard. I want this blog to be part of the effort to help make this happen - because I believe it is good for business and good for people.

And I am interested in what leaders in these organisations (where these ideas bubble forth like a mountain brook), what these leaders are doing to create the right context. This for me is critical. Simply exhorting organisations to do more to unleash the small ideas with big results is not enough. I want to hear about what leaders are doing to make this happen.

In this way I hope that other leaders will learn and add to their own practice.

And everyone wins.