On 19 August research by Knox D’Arcy Ltd claiming that UK local government could lose 500,000 jobs and still provide the same services was publicised on the Conservative Home web site.

Within a day or two the claim had been picked up across the UK media and reported from BBC’s Radio 4 to The Belfast Telegraph to the local government trade press.

I blogged about the claims on 20 August under the title The curious case of council productivity and then again on 24 August reporting the responses of readers to my previous summary.

It appeared that media reports were based on a press release and from the scant information available I summarised my reaction to the research as

the best you could say about it is that pending further information, the jury has to be out on its conclusions.

Overnight on 20/21 August a note appeared on the company’s web site that said

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 said that I would return to the subject once the report was available.

The end of August passed.  No download on the web site.

Sometime between the close of play on 2 September and the morning of 3 September a revamped version of the web site appeared with a News page.

The one item on the page is headed Two-thirds of each worker’s day is ‘lost’ in Local Government and leads to a pdf file (downloadable for sure) which is actually a press release not a “report” as previously promised.

So my eagerly awaited copy of a full report explaining how the conclusions were reached is still not available as a download although there is now a further statement that the research…is to be published in September.

Once again I am in waiting mode.

But in view of the publicity the topic has already received it seems not unreasonable to comment on the further information that is available.

The press release itself is well worth perusing in full.

I previously expressed scepticism about the scope of this work – its conclusions were said to be based on 1,855 surveys of managers and supervisors, of which only 173 were local government officers.  It was claimed from these surveys that UK private sector staff are productive on average 44% of the time and local government staff 32% of the time.

The press release raises two further issues

  • It says the research was conducted while undertaking assignments in private and public sector organisations, and draws on 20 years of data – but we do not know when the various elements of the data were collected over that long period.  We do not know who the comparators were or, since Knox D’Arcy work in other countries, whether they were all UK-based
  • while there is confirmation of the 1,855 surveys on which their conclusions are based there is the additional information that the research included 376 day-long observations, comprised of a minute by minute categorisation of how the manager in question spent his (sic) time, of which 36 were from local government (my emphasis).

A respondent to my previous post commented that

If this was some sort of random survey, and we don’t know, the confidence levels for a value of 32% (local government productive time) from a sub sample of 173 is about +/- 7 per centage points i.e. 25% to 39%.

A similar but lesser range (I haven’t calculated it) would apply to the private sector 44% so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that even if the data were from a random sample (but one company’s clients won’t be) there is actually no significant difference between the private and local government samples.

If you then factor in that a significant but unknown part of the detailed conclusions derived from only 36 of 376 day-long observations you really get to the point at which you question the statistical validity of the whole exercise.

In addition, I had said before that we did not know which or how many local authorities had been involved in the research.  That remains the case.

Knox D’Arcy’s web site lists local government amongst the Types of organisation that are their clients.  But the only public sector client named is the Royal Mint.

A search on Google for knox d’arcy + council returns only two examples of the company’s work for UK local authority clients in the first 200 hits (of course that does not mean there are not more).

King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council

The council used the company in 2003/4 to carry out a diagnostic survey for a service and establishment review.  The results were considered by their cabinet scrutiny committee on 10 and 14 June 2004.

A number of concerns were expressed on 10 June including the fact that the company had not previously worked for a local authority… whether they fully understand the context in which councils operate, particularly the role of Members… had spent little time in discussions with Heads of Service…in some cases appeared to have used information that could not be verified and seemed to be inaccurate…[and]… there appeared to have been some misunderstanding by the consultants about the designation and role of manager.

On 14 June the committee recommended to council that the consultants be requested to hand over their working papers and steps should be taken to ensure that their obligations under the contract have been met.

Finally, on 24 June the council endorsed the first part of that recommendation and resolved that the consultants be requested to hand over their working papers.

London Borough of Hounslow

Hounslow’s cabinet accepted a preliminary issues report on their performance improvement programme from Knox D’Arcy on 12 December 2006 and agreed to go to tender to procure consultants to undertake the performance improvement programme itself.

Their overview and scrutiny committee called in the recommendation and on 12 January 2007 had what looks like a long and political debate on the report which raised a number of issues about the work undertaken including …the Consultants undertaking the preliminary study did not have sufficient knowledge of Local Government…they had never implemented a full business transformation programme in Local Government. ..the[ir] report included no proper costings and no breakdown of figures…[and]…a lack of understanding of basic health and safety issues when visiting a Council Depot. The committee resolved that the proposed programme not be implemented but be referred to full council for consideration, albeit because of the lack of budget provision.

Scroll on to the overview and scrutiny committee meeting of 16 July 2007 and it is clear that KPMG won the contract to carry out the performance improvement programme.  Asked to comment on the earlier work KPMG said that they had not disagreed with its findings. They felt that they would have written it differently and perhaps addressed some of the difficult issues more sensitively.

So on the basis of the information available it is possible (I stress possible) that the conclusion local government could shed 500,000 jobs and still provide the same level of service is based on 173 interviews and 36 day long observations in two councils in 2003 and 2006, in both of which at least some councillors disputed the conclusions they were given.

I would love to be proved wrong.

As a footnote, I should say I do believe there is scope for major improved efficiency and effectiveness in local government specifically and the wider public sector more generally.

But the way to identify those improvements is detailed work and prioritisation by each council.  An extrapolation of what in all honesty is a tiny survey to a conclusion that half a million jobs are dispensable across hundreds of councils helps no one.