Making a mark

Benchmarking, like any other activity, needs an objective. If it is seen merely as a tick in a box or a requirement of an inspection process, it will never realise its potential as a crucial instrument for improving communication, management information, best practice, innovation and quality.

The 15 health and local authorities in the south west of England have formed a group with the mission: “Achieving better outcomes for vulnerable children and young people with complex needs, while providing value for money. Through the use of combined intelligence the South West can speak with one voice to ensure quality service delivery.”

The goals go way beyond that of just benchmarking and encompass the creation of a regional database, consistent contacts, joint commissioning with partners in education and health services and regional commissioning strategies.

The South West Agency Providers (Swap) database is already invaluable in benchmarking. Although developed and managed by Gloucestershire social services, it was funded as a regional resource by the 15 authorities. Its aims are to:

  • Enable a comprehensive listing of agency placements throughout the UK.
  • Provide purchasing and management information.
  • Assist in developing agreed standards.
  • Facilitate needs-led planning.

Providers are requested to supply information on services provided, placements available, contact details, brochures on services, inspection reports, National Care Standards Commission registration, Ofsted reports and vacancies.

The authorities taking part are required to supply information on their placements and a contact for future enquiries.

Participating authorities ring the Swap office with details of the placement type required and a summary of the young person’s needs. The office will then fax or e-mail suitable needs-led placement options to the case holder.

However, an expedited placement process is just one benefit. The database can also provide the region or individual authorities with all the following:

  • Number and location of agency providers used by the region with funding breakdown contributions by education and health.
  • Usage made of providers.
  • Referral analysis, including comparative breakdown of the previous six months.
  • Provider commitment to contractual agreements.

The database also provides:

  • Information on likely costs.
  • Information on quality.
  • The facility to put people in touch with authorities currently using providers.
  • Demand and supply data.

The region has an exciting agenda for progress, with the appointment of a regional project leader to look at placements for children with specialised and complex needs and the development of quality benchmarking tools.

At the 2003 national commissioning and contracting conference, members of south-west region joined representatives of the eastern region to benchmark regional processes and to deliver a joint workshop to explore opportunities for progressing the work nationally.

Benchmarking in the south-west has been a live management tool which has enabled continuous development towards the achievement of an integrated, informed and quality service to children and young people.

Claire Smart is purchasing manager at Gloucestershire Social Services.

What is benchmarking?

Originally, a “benchmark” was a surveyor’s mark made on a fixed object of previously determined position and elevation, and used as a reference point in tidal observations and surveys, writes Graham Hopkins. 

However, its modern day usage – as a standard by which something can be measured or judged – became in vogue in the US in the 1970s.  Benchmarking has so many definitions (“What is benchmarking?” conjures up 2,730 options on the web) that it might be a useful to carry out a benchmarking exercise on defining the word. 

However, the government’s Public Sector Benchmarking Service, launched in November 2000, developed as a partnership between the Cabinet Office and Customs and Excise, assure us that benchmarking is a fundamental part of developing modern public services.  Put simply, benchmarking means “improving ourselves by learning from others”.  

This involves learning, sharing information and adopting best practices to bring about improvements in performance.   If you are approaching benchmarking for the first time expect to be confused by the number of definitions out there as organisations tend to mould it to suit themselves. It can help to focus on the learning and sharing that goes on during the process. 

In practice, this means: 

  • Regularly comparing aspects of your organisation’s performance (functions or processes) with those recognised as the best in a particular field.  
  • Identifying gaps in your performance.  
  • Looking for fresh ways to improve performance.  
  • Following through with implementing improvements.  
  • Following up by monitoring progress and reviewing the benefits.  


Top tips 

  • Don’t become involved in benchmarking for the sake of it – have a clear purpose and targeted outcome. 
  • Make sure that all agencies involved are committed, open and honest. 
  • But remember, just because someone does it differently it doesn’t necessarily make it better.   

Rubbish tips 

  • Benchmarking is a quick fix; it’s a one-off process. So do it, tick that box and leave it there. 
  • Just find out who’s doing something you’re not and copy them. Job done. 
  • Don’t give away too much about what you do. Keep that competitive edge.

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