Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report


This report assesses the measurement culture, an increasingly important feature of public services over the past twenty years. Such measurement has become especially important since the first Comprehensive Spending Review and the original publication of the Public Service Agreements (PSAs) in 1998. The Report concentrates in particular on performance targets, including the PSAs, and league tables.

The Report recognises that every organisation needs to have a means for measuring its own performance internally and in comparison with others, if it is to learn, develop and motivate its staff. None of our witnesses seriously advocated that performance measurement should be swept away, and we recognise that much has been achieved by means of it. The increase in accountability and transparency which targets have brought with them has been valuable. Taxpayers and users of public services have a right to know how well their services are being delivered and who is accountable for them. We also acknowledge that where necessary the system has been adapted to changing circumstances.

The Government's five aspirations for its targets are that they should provide:

  • a clear statement of what the Government is trying to achieve;
  • a clear sense of direction and ambition;
  • a focus on delivering results;
  • a basis for what is and is not working; and
  • better accountability.

What we found, however, is that these very laudable aims are in many cases not being fulfilled nor widely recognised as such by those on the front line whose job it is to deliver them. This is not least because of the lack of proper integration between the building of an organisation's capacity through what we call 'the performance culture' and tracking quantitative achievement in the public services through the 'measurement culture'. The result has been tension between those charged with centralised responsibility and those who are responsible for dispersed delivery of public services.

We therefore make a number of recommendations which propose that the Government comes forward with a White Paper on targets in good time for the Spending Review 2004. This would better integrate the performance and measurement cultures by:

  • ensuring greater local autonomy to construct more meaningful and relevant targets, and making sure they are as few as possible, and focus on key outcomes;
  • widening the targets consultation process to involve professionals, service users and, as part of the Spending Review process, select committees and Parliament; and
  • reforming the way in which targets are set, to move away from a simplistic hit or miss approach towards measures of progress which will enable better and more intelligent comparisons by managers and users alike.

We believe all this should be underpinned by:

  • common reporting standards on PSA targets;
  • independent assessment by the National Audit Office (NAO) of whether and how far targets have been met;
  • annual reporting on performance by Government on the model of the Scottish Executive with the information independently validated by the NAO, National Statistics and the Audit Commission as appropriate; and
  • an action plan to enhance performance management skills locally and at the centre.

Inevitably such reforms have implications for greater, decentralised, political accountability which will need to be faced up to if the 'new localism', recently proclaimed by the Government, is to become a reality. We also call for a more mature political debate about the measurement culture, based on a better understanding of targets as tools to improve performance.

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Prepared 22 July 2003