Coping with coronavirus: Performance Tracker 2020

10 Dec 20

This year’s Performance Tracker can help the public sector learn from what has – and has not – worked during Covid-19, says Jeffrey Matsu.

For the past five years, CIPFA has worked with the Institute for Government on our annual Performance Tracker report.

A blend of qualitative and quantitative analysis, it draws on insights of experts across Whitehall and the public sector.

It asks the questions that hold the government to account for its actions.

It highlights the risks and opportunities facing policymakers, who are confronting one of the deepest economic recessions in our lifetime. 

The government’s focus on responding to the unprecedented public health crisis means the report is a little different this year.

It hones in on five key services – hospitals, general practice, adult social care, schools and criminal courts – and the extent to which they were equipped to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. 

From buying personal protective equipment and installing new equipment to enable homeworking, to hiring staff to cover for those self-isolating, owing to infection or exposure, public bodies have faced substantial additional financial costs.

In social care, the average proportion of days lost to staff sickness was approximately 8% between March and June 2020, compared with a rate of 2.4% pre-coronavirus.

While much of this additional spending will be reimbursed, there remain significant gaps, particularly in local government.

The crisis has also seen a substantial reduction in overall service levels, with many public sector organisations having to pause work to maintain social distancing and reduce infections.

Nearly four million people are waiting for elective treatments. Schools all but closed their doors.

Courts processed 62% fewer criminal cases between March and June 2020 than in the same period in 2019. In most instances, these services continue to operate at far below pre-crisis levels.

A substantial backlog of issues is also likely to come home to roost at some point. Children have missed hundreds of hours of education, medical needs have gone unmet, and our report estimates that 56,000 cases still need to go through the courts – the biggest backlog in at least 20 years.

A second wave, combined with the risk of burnout for staff who have worked throughout the pandemic, means the issue is only set to grow. 

However, the crisis has presented opportunities to improve the quality and reach of services and reduce costs – such as the rapid deployment and adoption of technology to deliver services remotely.

During lockdown, public services also collaborated more effectively, with signs that the pandemic could act as a much-needed catalyst for greater integration of health and social care. 

It is vital that the public sector learns from what has – and has not – worked over the past six months and outlines where to go from here. Service delays will need to be addressed.

In the post-coronavirus world, what will the government view as an acceptable waiting time for access to healthcare and the criminal justice system? Acute stress, for example, can lead to chronic conditions if left unattended.

The government will need to balance short-term cost pressures with these longer-term consequences.

Meanwhile, Whitehall will need to assess if, where and how key crisis measures are to be extended.

Some measures implemented during the crisis, such as digital triage for GPs, may prove to be beneficial and enduring transformations that improve efficiency and value for money in how public services are delivered in the future. 

Returning to the pre-crisis status quo would probably be warranted only in very specific circumstances, where performance was already exceeding expectations. 

  • Jeffrey Matsu

    Jeffrey Matsu is chief economist at CIPFA. With extensive experience in connecting policy with practice through evidence-based research, he works with partner governments, accountancy bodies and the public sector around the world to advance public finance and support better public services.

    Previously, Jeff was responsible for market analysis and thought leadership at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and co-led the economy theme at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.

    He was also a senior economist at Morgan Stanley and served on the research staff at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in Washington DC.

    Jeff holds degrees in economics from the University of Washington and Johns Hopkins University.

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