A study into the approach to benchmarking in English district councils under Localism

Martin, Helen (2018) A study into the approach to benchmarking in English district councils under Localism. (DBA thesis), Kingston University, .


English local government exists in a turbulent financial environment with increasing customer demands but tighter finances. It has a history of metrics benchmarking and was required to benchmark as part of the Best Value regime. Literature suggests that the public sector undertakes benchmarking both as a tool for improving performance and to gain legitimacy. The local government legitimacy paradigm is not a constant and has changed from New Public Management (NPM), with its expectations of competition and a private sector ethos, towards a new paradigm of New Public Governance (NPG). This thesis questions the approach to benchmarking as a tool for performance improvement, and the factors driving the way in which it is delivered in the public sector. Literature about performance measurement in the public sector is reviewed together with historical analysis on the theory of benchmarking. The research is informed by Neo-institutional theory as a framework for studying organisational change. The concept of legitimacy is probed on the conforming elements of compliance and convergence of structures, cultures, and strategies. The research questions are investigated using an exploratory case study employing 19 semi structured interviews with council officers, supported by documentary evidence, in a purposive sample of 18 district councils in England. The research took place during the administration of the Coalition government (2010-2015). The aim of the research being to provide a rich analysis of the methods used and the influences of coercive, mimetic, and normative forces on benchmarking practice. The thesis details the public sector environment and ascertains the detailed factors which constitute the isomorphic pressures on the councils. The research finds that metrics benchmarking, as a tool of efficiency, relates to directly provided services during the legitimacy paradigm of NPM, but observes that the coercive pressures of that time have sedimented into the current organisational culture. The case study shows that isomorphic forces are present, but their influence is mitigated by benchmarking and organisational cultures, and the pressures to comply with coercive and normative forces is stronger than for mimetic forces. Evidence shows that councils are not converging in their structures and their benchmarking practices show some regional variations. The study is exploratory and further research could be undertaken into the ways the wider public sector undertakes the measurement and assessment of performance improvement and how it manages the delivery of legitimacy under the new NPG paradigm.

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