Benchmarking in

Local Government Legal Services

 

A. Introduction

1. This article outlines:-

 

a) What benchmarking is;

b) How benchmarking fits into the wider context of ‘Best Value’ and the management of the Legal Services department;

c) Choice of benchmarks available and against what;

d) Some alternatives to benchmarking;

e) Some of Bolton Metro Legal Services' experiences; and

f) Some general conclusions on benchmarking.

2. A copy of the handout slides produced by the author for the 4th Series of Cipfa/ACSeS Legal Workshops in June 1998 are available from the Chairman for cross-reference purposes.

 

B. What is benchmarking?

 

3. Various definitions exist for benchmarking (see handout slides). The briefest and, possibly, the most useful is that used by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise:-

 

"The continuous improvement of what we do by learning how others do it".

 

C. The wider context

 

4. Benchmarking is part of the Government's ‘Best Value’ initiative; which in turn is part of the greater "Modernising of Local Government" agenda involving, for example, community leadership, democratic renewal and changes to the ethical framework of local government. It also forms a major component of the government's ''4 C's" principles of challenge, compare, consult and compete.

 

5. It should, however, be noted that at the service management level, benchmarking is but one factor among others that the busy legal services manager has to consider in running a quality, cost effective and efficient legal service. Other factors (see handout slides) include, inter alia, understanding and defining the legal service to be provided, setting appropriate performance standards and ensuring effective communication channels are in place for clients/staff. Service managers should not, therefore, regard benchmarking as providing the solution for all the ‘ills’ of their service. It is not as simple as that!

 

 

D. Choice of benchmarks available

6. There are potentially a huge number of benchmarks, in theory, that could be adopted or considered appropriate for a legal services department. The handout slides provide a few examples of the types of benchmarks that could be used. The key, however, is not to choose to many benchmarks!

 

7. Quality of benchmark as opposed to the quantity of benchmarks will determine how useful benchmarking techniques will be to improving the quality of legal services to the Council. A handful of key critical success factor benchmarks that are appropriate should be good target to aim for since the more benchmarks there are, the greater will be the likely cost of "tracking" such benchmarks. A list of possible "Critical Success Factor benchmarks in legal services" appears at the end of this article.

 

8. In determining the choice of those key CSF benchmarks, it is important to recognise that the Council/department must be clear about the purpose of such benchmarks and they should, ideally, relate to or further the objectives of the Council if they are to have real meaningful and long lasting impact. Benchmarking in isolation may appear ‘good’ in the short term but if the organisational context/culture for benchmarking is not right, they will soon become another ‘management fad of the day!’ Managers should, therefore, carefully think through the ‘value added’ aspects of the selected benchmarks before embarking upon the same.

 

9. Benchmarking requires a ‘benchmark’ against which performance can be measured. Different options are also available over this issue and managers should choose carefully bearing in mind that different organisations (even internally!) have policies, priorities and contexts that may not be entirely right or appropriate for another organisation. Some examples of what could be measured and against what are given in the handout slides.

 

10. Managers should also not forget that they could benchmark internally against themselves! The real learning will, however, undoubtedly come from looking outside of the department/Council.

 

11. The Benchmarking Wheel (see handout slides) provides a useful framework for considering benchmarking. Each stage of the Wheel should be used carefully to ensure that real continuous improvements are actually achieved. Used wisely, the author is convinced from his on experience, that benchmarking can be a most effective tool in achieving continuous improvement in service delivery. The annual tracking of ‘excellent/good’ customer satisfaction ratings for legal services clearly shows how continuous improvements have been made in Bolton Metro Legal Services over the past four years (see handout slides). Other examples of quality improvements introduced in recent years by Bolton Metro Legal Services are also set out in the handout slides.

 

12. As indicated earlier (paragraph 5), benchmarking is not the answer for everything and nor is it the only management tool available to the legal services manager for ensuring continuous improvements. The handout slides shows some alternatives to benchmarking (including Investors in People and the Business Excellence Model) which can be helpful in focussing ‘inward and outward’ to produce real tangible benefits for clients/customers.

 

 

E. Concluding remarks

13. Like anything else, managers should be clear about the purpose of benchmarking from the outset and about what they hope to achieve from it. Choices exist at each stage of the process and managers should think carefully about all the implications before embarking upon, what could turn out to be, an expensive and time-consuming exercise.

 

14. Managers must also not forget about their own (and their staff's) learning opportunities through such processes and must guard against the temptation of "following others" with the inherent danger that lawyers fail to lead or to provide innovative solutions for local government. For real effectiveness, managers should network and learn from managers in similar positions and endeavour to avoid over complexity and bureaucracy in any benchmarking exercise that they establish. The author is aware of quite a few Benchmarking Clubs for Legal Services being established across the country.

 

15. In conclusion, managers should not be afraid to "try it and see" because that may be the only real way that they may be able to continuously improve the quality of legal services to the clients/customers. In addition, any gaps in service that are identified must be genuinely learned from for real benefits and not "justified".

 

16. Good luck!

 

Possible "critical success factor benchmarks"

for LOCAL GOVERNMENT Legal Services

 

I. Customer Satisfaction

Ensure (and then maintain) an acceptable level of ‘excellent / good’ ratings every year.

II. Quality Staff

Ensure, at least, all the training and development needs (as identified by their personal development plans under IIP) are met.

III. Quality Systems

Ensure continuous quality improvements with appropriate I.T solutions.

IV. CCT Contracts

Ensure surpluses exceed, every year, for the corporate pot.

V. Cost / Budgets

Ensure, at least, income exceeds costs of service delivery each year and, if the service is provided under devolved budgets, ensure the total recovery, at least, of such devolved budgets each year.

VI. Service specific

Developments

Ensure at least ‘x’ tangible improvements per year are identified and actioned for the service area.

VII. Teams / Supervisors /

Manager Developments

Ensure at least ‘x’ tangible improvements per year are identified by them and appropriately actioned.

 

 

Mr. Mirza F.N. Ahmad, MBA, Barrister

Assistant Director of Central Services (Legal)

Bolton M.B.C. (01204) 522311 ext. 1111 11th July 1998


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