How public sector performance stats turn blunders into successes

Empty pavement, Highgate Hill, Islington

It’s another empty pavement success. Unlike that one, this one thankfully did not take seven months. It was a mere two months to get the bricks left over by roadworks contractors to be removed.

So far, nothing out of the ordinary there for long-term readers of my blog. Whether it is bollards, potholes, road markings or the like, you’ll know how common it is for it to take months and months for the simplest of repairs or remedies to be implemented.

But what’s of particular interest in this case is my communications with Islington Council. Fundamentally, it’s been a case of things going wrong. The contractors didn’t clean up properly after themselves in the first place. The people managing the contractors didn’t spot the mistake. Then, when I picked up the issue, I was told several times it was going to be fixed – but that turned out to be repeatedly wrong until the final time.

Yet each time I emailed the council I got a quick reply. From the point of view of their performance statistics, it looks like several times they managed to deal with something quickly. (Or at least they would if I didn’t know by now how their performance stats game works, and made sure I put in one of my emails that key phrase about treating the email as an “official complaint”. At which point the response speed drops, but at least the performance stat somewhere is knocked down rather than inflated up.)

It’s a good example of failure demand – the part of John Seddon’s case that I agree with and where David Boyle and I agree most often when we’re remembering not to disagree over numbers.

The frontline email performance statistics may look good – but that’s only because they don’t measure the failure to deal completely with a case. What was an apparent series of performance successes – quick replies to emails – was really a series of failure, generating more work and delays. And of course it would not only have been better to have got this right first time round – it would also have been cheaper.

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