Cost Accounting in Local Government

Benchmarking in Local Government

I noticed the other day that some of the groups I’ve joined on LinkedIn are discussing benchmarking. I went through my benchmarking phase two decades ago. After conceptualizing an approach that I thought would be valuable, I realized that I didn’t have the time to follow-up and, as an “outsider,” would not get the cooperation that the process required for success. Therefore, I’m going to open-source my idea in hopes that one of the local government professional associations will pick it up.

It is my opinion that trying to monetize the results of benchmarking makes comparisons between agencies very difficult. Comparing costs is a valid approach if the service is contracted out. However, if the service is performed by in-house staff, it’s an established fact that two agencies could be doing the identical service and have significantly different costs. The differences are a combination of salary/benefit variations, operating cost choices and overhead allocations. In order to avoid the cost comparison issue for in-house services, I propose that the benchmarking compare staff service times.

How would this work? All services are performed by a combination of some or all of the following employee categories: supervisory, professional, technical and clerical. The supervisory time that is included must be time spent on the actual service not overseeing the workers which should be considered overhead. The time might be in the same department/activity or across multiple departments/activities. The advantage of using these four groups is that it eliminates the issue of comparing an Associate Planner with a Senior Planner. If both are being used in their professional capacity (as opposed to supervisory), then their time is considered to be in the same category – professional. Similarly, if a service is performed by a lead maintenance worker (not supervising) in one agency and senior maintenance worker in another agency, the time for both is considered technical and compared one-for-one.

The results of this approach need to be discussed, not compared, between agencies for there to be any benefit. I envisioned (for example) the planning directors of participating agencies sitting down around a table and discussing the result. There is no “good” or “bad” only different. If the differences between agencies are due to special circumstances, that is valuable information. However, if two agencies believe that they are providing the same service in the same set of circumstances, then the two directors need to delve into the details to determine what caused the difference. It could well be that the agency with the least amount of time was missing important steps that another agency discovered by experience which is why I’ve always believed that cheaper is not necessarily better. The discussions of various services should lead to an agreement on best practices by the participants.

Although we have ignored “costs” up to this point, we did so because the time to perform a service can be discussed and analyzed by directors. The actual cost is dependent on the circumstances which may be unique to each agency and are generally beyond the purview of directors and involve personnel policies.

 

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