“The UK’s councils could do the same amount of work with 500,000 fewer staff if they matched the productivity of private firms, a report has claimed.”

This is the first sentence of an item on the BBC news web site today. Their You and Yours programme on Radio 4 also carried an interview with the report’s author, consultant Paul Weekes of a company called Knox d’Arcy.

This is a great topic worthy of serious examination.

The first thing to say is that it’s difficult because although the research has been widely publicised in the UK media this last week, none of the references actually provide a link to the report itself.  The BBC for one is usually meticulous about this.

An obvious place to find the report would be the Knox D’Arcy web site.  Unfortunately, it does not have a “News” section or make any reference to the report anywhere.

So my less than enthusiastic (as you will discover) look at this has to be based on media reports.  The first three thrown up by Google were the BBC, the Belfast Telegraph and the Conservative Home web site.  Others were listed but added little by way of more information.

The central claim in the report is that

junior staff in local authorities were, on average, productive only 32% of their time during working hours…compared with an average of 44% in the private sector – BBC web site

This conclusion seems to be based on 1,855 what the BBC call “workers’ surveys”.  The Belfast Telegraph more helpfully explains that the 1,855 surveys were of managers and supervisors, including 173 from local government officers.

There is no information available of how Knox D’Arcy defined a local government officer, which councils or even sorts of council they came from, or when the surveys were carried out.

There is no information about what sorts of organisations the other 1,682 managers and supervisors came from, or again when.  Knox D’Arcy claim an international clientele, almost exclusively private sector, so the comparators could be in the UK or elsewhere.  They could be manufacturers or service providers.

There is no definition of what Knox D’Arcy regard as “productive time”.

Although it may be the BBC’s choice of phrase (if Knox D’Arcy choose not to publish their full research how can we know?) we do not know what they mean by “junior staff”.

All this makes it extremely difficult to judge whether these claims are valid but two thoughts come to mind.

  • 173 “surveys” is a painfully low number to draw any conclusions from for a sector that employs 2,900,000 (Report on the Triennial Review of the Quarterly Public Sector Employment Survey, Office of National Statistics 2008).  On the arbitrary assumption that 1 in 10 might be a manager or supervisor that is a sample of 0.6%.  We do not know if they were chosen randomly, which would be the only sure way some statistical confidence could be assigned to the sample’s characteristics
  • the difference in productive use of time between private sector and local government is said to be 12% (44% – 32%). If 2,900,000 people could be made 12% more productive that would mean, crudely and all other things being equal, that their work could be done by 2,550,000 people, 350,000 fewer people not 500,000

Finally, we do not know if the report was commissioned by a client or whether Knox d’Arcy carried it out on their own behalf.

None of these points individually invalidates the report.  But taken together the best you could say about it is that pending further information, the jury has to be out on its conclusions.

The sadness, as so often, is that the media have taken up what is presumably a press release and reported it almost completely uncritically.

Footnote 21 August 2010 – this post refers to the apparent unavailability of the report on which the conclusions reported above are based.  Overnight a note has appeared on the Knox D’Arcy web site saying The research into public sector productivity will be available as a down load from this site when the report is released at the end of August.  I will return to the subject once it is available.