Numbers and Knowledge

May 25, 2018   By Merran McRae, Chief Executive, Wakefield Council

Whitehall and Local Government often seem fixated on numbers, metrics and targets, as a trigger for focus and action, show to residents, and to satisfy inspectorates as to just exactly what councils have achieved for their residents and areas through their efforts.

The nadir of this fixation across English local government was probably the first year of the Best Value Regime in 2001. Each upper tier council in that year had to report 224 separate measures to Whitehall, with the vast majority of these figures requiring targets to be attached and the threat of shaming or intervention for those at the bottom of league tables.

There is a common misconception that if a number is reported by a council, then that council has control or at least significant influence over that number, and the better the number, the better the council. That way lies the risk of metrics being internally ‘gamed’ (one council in the early days of Best Value was rumoured to only take visitor numbers for its leisure facilities on bank holiday Mondays – then take that figure as the daily average for the year) or other, often more important, issues being obscured in a cloud of data and targets. Operational data can triumph over strategic intelligence and analysis in terms of both focus and resource allocation.

In Wakefield we are exploring a new approach with our Wakefield Together Partnership Board, bringing together key stakeholders from across our district to collectively understand and respond to the challenges facing our district.

We will have a common short set of measures which help us understand our district and trends impacting on it, based on our biannual Wakefield State of The District Report. What will be important however, will not be the numbers themselves, but an understanding of the forces shaping those numbers, the causal relationships between them, and the short and long term potential impacts of trends in those numbers on our district and public services. Often these forces will emanating from outside of a district, or even outside a surrounding region – the economy, consequences of government policy etc.

Understanding these impacts and their scale and relationships is key to addressing and mitigating them. Whilst local areas cannot for example, solve a global economic downturn, we can seek to mitigate its impacts through local regeneration policies based on inclusive growth, and measure our success in that. Increasingly our recognition of local public agencies as Anchor Institutions, with a wider economic and social role beyond just service delivery is helping us do that.

No targets for changing the wider environment, just a prompt for informed discussion and further qualitative or quantitative analysis if needed. The task of leaders is to understand these coming headwinds or opportunities and prepare their partnerships and organisations to respond appropriately, either as individual bodies or collaboratively. Other strategic metrics will however show what we achieved in terms of local action, levels of community cohesion/activism, quality of our neighbourhoods and places etc.

What we have fallen short on, particularly in a time of austerity, is knowledge and understanding. Metrics are part of this picture, but they are never the whole picture.

The American academic Jerry Muller, in the conclusion of his 2018 book ‘The Tyranny of Metrics’, argues: “Ultimately, the issue is not one of metrics versus judgment, but metrics as informing judgment, which includes knowing how much weight to give to metrics, recognizing their characteristic distortions, and appreciating what can’t be measured.”

The task of public leaders is to turn metrics and other information, qualitative and even sometimes anecdotal, into knowledge and use that knowledge as a basis for action. Moving the numbers may or may not happen and certainly may not move overnight. The ONS only carries out a full household survey every decade not just for reasons of cost – but because a decade is about when major changes in places and communities tends to be observable.

Knowledge should not only lead to action, but to better informed and focused action. In a time of austerity and rising demand we often have little time for reflection and long term thinking. Our new approach in Wakefield is designed to build and sustain the capacity for this across local leaders and partners.

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