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At a time when openness and accountability are vitally important in local government, benchmarking is yet another tool to help each council work out how it is performing.

Initially launched last year, the benchmarking project was set up in collaboration with Improvement Service, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) and has recently published its second annual overview report. Benchmarking uses specific indicators to measure how organisations are performing, for example, how much a service costs per user. These provide a simple metric which can then be compared across organisations and year-on-year. The main purposes of this project are to help councils and their services better understand why they achieve their current performance levels; building understanding of where councils’ performance varies; building understanding of why performance variation occurs; and helping to identify and share good practice across local authorities.

The project now takes into account three years’ worth of data and organisers believe it is going from strength to strength. The newly-published report found councils were making significant progress in working as partners and in offering better value for public money. It said while collaborating, innovating, and working more efficiently, local authorities are also delivering services to increasing numbers of people, more of whom report increased levels of satisfaction with the service they receive.

Some of the stand-out findings span education, housing and culture and leisure services. In education, the benchmarking project found increasing numbers of young people leaving school are heading for positive destinations in further education, work and training – an increase from 88.9 per cent in 2010/11 to 91.4 per cent in 2012/13. Also, more young people are achieving more than five awards at SQA levels 5 and 6, an increase from 36 per cent to 39 per cent for level 5, and 23 per cent to 26 per cent for level 6 since 2010/11.

Looking at housing, the number of vacant council homes has been reduced and the standard of housing stock is improving. For example, the percentage of dwellings meeting Scottish Housing Standards has increased from 54 per cent to 77 per cent across the period. In culture and leisure services, visitor numbers are increasing while costs are reducing. For sports facilities, an increase in visitor numbers of 13.5 per cent was seen against a backdrop of a reduction in gross expenditure of -6.4 per cent over the same period.

Ronnie Hinds, chairman of the Local Government Benchmarking Board, told Holyrood that now there is three years’ worth of data, organisers can start to look at the information in term of trends.

He said: “Looking at the results and the report, we can safely say the general trend of improvement we saw last year is being maintained. In some respects, it is better. Costs are reducing, as you would expect, due to the financial realities out there, but service levels in most cases are at least being maintained and in some are getting better.

“In short, better for less is possible. I’m not saying it’s easy to do and I’m not saying we can do it every time but it is possible and here is the evidence that shows it. A couple of examples to substantiate that claim - if you look at educational attainment for both Standard and Higher grade, we can see that there’s been roughly a 10 per cent improvement in pupil attainment at the same time as education budgets have had to reduce. We break the attainment results down into deprivation areas, and what we’ve seen is the bottom 20 per cent, so the most deprived have seen their attainment improving. They’ve gone up by more than 20 per cent for both Standard and Higher grade. Not only is attainment getting better generally, it’s getting better faster in areas where there’s deprivation.

“Another example would be something like culture and leisure. Those services have been hit harder financially than education. Despite the hit on their budgets, what we’ve seen is the number of people coming through the turnstiles is actually increasing. There’re all sorts of reasons for that, but from a public service point of view, it has to be a good thing that we’re getting more productivity out of these public assets. If you build swimming pools or refurbish a museum or library, you want people to come and the evidence is that the numbers are increasing, even though we’re able to spend less money on the assets.

“One of the great things about this [project] is you can get strong evidence, good data, right across the country, which shows if policies are working or not.”

The report also pinpoints challenges where further work is required. Those issues include growing rent arrears – from 5.9 per cent to 6.8 per cent – possibly linked to UK Government welfare changes, and increasing waste disposal costs, which represent an increase of 3.7 per cent in real terms since 2010/11. The report also highlighted challenges arising from the integration of social care and health services, and the increasing numbers of people who require self-directed support packages.

Hinds continued: “There’re always ups and downs. One area this year which is noteworthy is that the costs of waste disposal seem to be increasing. The cost of waste collection is not but disposal is, and quite noticeably. We’ve said in the report that this merits further investigation. There could be any number of reasons for it but councils are getting better at recycling, so we need to find out if recycling is part of the reason. Or whether because there’s variation within councils and between councils, some people are better able to manage the costs of waste disposal and other people might still be struggling. If we find out who can square the circle so other people can follow suit.”

For Hinds, who is former chief executive of Fife Council and also current chairman of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland, the benchmarking project is about collaboration.

He added: “What we’ve done in the year since the first report came out is establish what we call the family groups. Every council in Scotland is fully involved in the project but in order to be able to compare like with like, we’ve split the 32 up into four groups. Councils that are similar to each other in socio-economic and geographical terms tend to be this family and those who have different characteristics are in a different family. The point of this is not only do you have a manageable amount around the table but they know that they’re talking to the right people because they have similar issues they have to deal with.

“Orkney and Glasgow at the same table might not be as meaningful as having Glasgow and Lanarkshire. Those groups have been working and they’re going to be producing their first reports in May, so we’ll see how good the collaborative effort is when we get the results of those pilots. That’s the long-term future for this, it’s the practice of benchmarking, not just the publication of the results.

“One of the most heartening things about this is the levels of participation. All 32 councils are involved and they’re actively involved. When we set the family groups up, it was the councils themselves who had to take on the task of organising and making the meetings happen and setting processes for the benchmarking to happen. That’s encouraging because you can’t do this top down, you can start it that way but if it’s going to be sustainable, people have to pick up the reins.

“The key thing is that they find the experience useful enough to keep it going, from that point on they should determine locally in their group of eight what issues they want to focus on. Having met each other and seen the benefits, they should be able to decide what they want to do next.”

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