Headlines: February 1st, 2005

An independent inquiry has recommended 54 improvements to the way the output and productivity of public services are measured. Sir Tony Atkinson, who undertook the study at the request of the National Statistician, Len Cook, said the need for public accountability meant there had to be measures of what is achieved by spending on public services.He said it could not simply be assumed that outputs equal inputs in such a major part of the economy, and he stressed the importance of a principled approach to measurement of output and productivity. Many of the recommendations, he said, set out a clear process for documentation, expert review and transparency, so that development work is made public and the limits of official measures are clearly understood.

Commenting on key points from his report, Sir Tony said, “The traditional output equals input convention, from which ONS has properly moved forward in recent years, does not capture the complex workings of the public sector and the UK cannot return to using this convention.”

He said major improvements were needed in indicators used to measure public service outputs. Current indicators were too limited in their coverage of activities, had been aggregated at too high a level and had often used data from England, not the whole United Kingdom. In some cases, he added, the indicators had been misclassified or affected by changes in the machinery of government and they often used information with a substantial time lag.

The report includes specific recommendations for the way forward in health, education, social protection, and public order and safety, building in each case on work in progress. The main proposals in health are better measures for primary care; movement towards measuring whole courses of treatment and ideas for measuring quality change in health care. In education the recommendations are to measure pupil attendance not pupil numbers; update the quality measure for schools as an interim measure; develop a new extended quality measure, which might include measuring the value of education through increased earnings and new measures for output of initial teacher training and publicly funded nursery places.

On public order and safety Sir Tony calls for detailed measures for the Criminal Justice System, with possible quality adjustment to reduce the value accorded to overcrowded prison cells; measuring fire output on the basis of weights that reflect the cost to the community of fire and further development of measures of the output of the Criminal Justice System as a whole. Finally on social protection he wants to see wider and more detailed coverage in the measure of adult social services output; extension of the children’s social services output measure; development work on quality adjustments for social services and an update of the index for social security administration, including adjustment for accuracy and timeliness.