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Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, today reported to Parliament developments in performance measurement intended to support the achievement of Government aims and objectives. For each Department, key objectives and associated performance targets feature in a Public Service Agreement, which underlies the resources allocated in spending reviews. These arrangements put the United Kingdom among the leaders in public sector performance measurement practice and provide a greater focus on policy outcomes : more than two thirds of some 160 Public Service Agreement targets now address such outcomes, such as improved health and education.

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Good performance measurement helps Departments to identify and communicate their priorities, plan cost-effective services and actively monitor progress. The targets need careful implementation and must be supported by good quality data if they are to deliver improvements in performance, as well as accountability to Parliament and the public.

The report draws on the National Audit Office’s survey of the challenges faced by Government Departments in developing and implementing testing performance measures and an analysis of performance measurement practices used in local authorities and overseas.

Most Departments faced challenges in designing ways to measure performance, including developing quantifiable measures showing their contributions to outcomes and agreeing measures with other Departments to support joined-up working. The report shows how:

  • clarifying the link between activities and objectives helps Departments design performance measures and set targets – as it did in planning for reductions in the level of tobacco smuggling; and
  • different performance measurement approaches can help departments to work together. Examples shown include the use of a common set of indicators to support an overarching objective, such as that for sustainable development; the use of Agreements that cut across Departmental boundaries and shared objectives for key priority areas such as drugs abuse; and shared targets where differing objectives overlap, such as that for international debt reduction, related to both specific poverty alleviation and general economic development objectives.

Departments also face challenges in implementing Public Service Agreement targets so as to raise performance: 82 per cent of departments found ensuring there were appropriate incentives for success was a great challenge; 71 per cent felt the same about giving a sense of ownership to front-line staff delivering services. The report shows how departments can:

  • improve the design of operational targets through consulting key stakeholders;
  • ensure that Public Service Agreement targets are integrated into the planning of crucial tasks;
  • provide relevant operational information to support front line staff; and
  • establish mechanisms which help these staff to raise performance.

Acquiring performance data of the right quality posed a great challenge for half of those surveyed, and minimising the costs of data was also an issue. The report shows that:

  • departments should determine the quality of data they need, and then operate adequate quality assurance arrangements to ensure they obtain quality data;
  • active review of existing information against needs can lead to more effective use of current sources, and can cut data collection that is no longer necessary – cuts of up to 26 per cent in the volume of data collected had been achieved; and
  • there are no accepted standards that apply to the validation of performance information, and arrangements for validation are rarely indicated in descriptions of how Public Service Agreement targets were to be measured.

"Good performance management can help Departments improve their effectiveness and promote accountability to public and Parliament. This report provides a series of case studies and key questions that Departments need to consider in specifying performance measures which support their objectives, in implementing performance measurement in a way which improves results and in collecting the data they need to manage and report on their performance."

Sir John Bourn


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