Getting the measure of public services performance: UK takes a lead


Government is taking an increasing interest in measuring performance in the public services sector to get value for money and raise standards. However, according to research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, measuring its output and productivity is not straight forward. While metrics using information embedded in prices can be employed in the private sector, this source of information is unavailable in services such as, health and education. Better measurements are needed - the research is part of the lead being taken by the UK to devise more sophisticated practices for the public services.

The project, conducted by Professor Mary O'Mahony of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, was concerned with measuring output and productivity in public services and in examining corresponding international practices.

"Considerable interest is being shown among statistical offices abroad on work being carried out in the UK on public services performance measurement," said Professor Mary O'Mahony. "It's also of relevance to government departments and of interest to the academic community. There's a recognition that Britain's leading the field in this area."

As well as providing an overview of the theoretical approaches and concepts used in performance management and examining alternative measures being made in other countries, the research incorporated common measurement tools to compare education sector performance since 1979 in the UK and USA. It also reviewed changes in performance in the EU health sectors.

With these tools, research showed that the growth rate in the UK's education sector has been significantly higher than the equivalent in the USA in the past 25 years, with the largest differences being seen in the 1990s. It also indicated that there appears to be little relationship in health sectors across the EU, at the macro level, between expenditure on services and the actual medical outcomes. However, at the microeconomic level, the outcomes for some specific diseases did suggest that there were some links between the way health systems are organised and medical outcomes.

"In the private sector benefits to consumers are embedded in market prices, but this information is not available for public services," said Professor Mary O'Mahony. "What's needed is an indication of the marginal contribution services make to eventual outcomes, e.g. impacts on patients' health outcomes, reduction in waiting times and, in education, students' academic success and what they eventually earn."

As a result of the research, Professor O'Mahony considers that a number of implications have emerged:

  • Attribution should be considered in the practical application of measurement methods, i.e. whether outcomes are influenced by extraneous factors, such as lifestyle changes leading to better health status.
  • Future research about public services performance requires data that has not been available up to now, and better ways of measuring outputs are needed - particularly in the health sector.
  • At the micro level it would, for example, be useful to have data that follows patients from first diagnosis to post treatment outcomes, and student record data that track educational attainment and subsequent earnings.

    Source: Eurekalert & others

    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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