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Triangulation: A helpful technique for better scrutiny

Triangulation is a key technique for anyone involved in a public scrutiny role.  If you are not familiar with the concept here is a short introduction that I hope you will find helpful.

As a councillor, school governor or member of any other type of public body, you will no doubt have found yourself looking at management and performance reports as part of your scrutiny role. What you are being asked to do is to provide assurance that things are as they should be and to provide ‘challenge’ to those making the decisions.  This is important – not just because you are acting the interests of citizens and service users – but because you want to see things continuously improving.

Sometimes, however, the report being presented by the senior officer, headteacher or chief executive, is the only source of information you have.  Given that they are the expert in their field, have helped produce the report and have all the background information at their fingertips, how then do you seek assurance and challenge? Of course you may trust them implicitly and you no doubt have good reason to do so.  But is this enough?

That’s where triangulation comes in.

Triangulation in the social sciences

In social science triangulation is a technique used to provide greater credibility and confidence for research results. In essence it borrows from the navigational idea that, given the mathematics of triangles, it’s possible to locate something when you view it from two or more points.

Often triangulation refers to the use of both quantitative and qualitative research methods in a single piece of research.  This highlights the need to look at more than just the numbers when we are trying to assess something – it’s always good to get a richer picture.

Types of triangulation

Norman Denzin identified four varieties of triangulation; theoretical, data, methodological and investigator.  It is the last three of these that are particularly useful for those involved in scrutiny roles:

Data triangulation: Time comparisons are always useful.  Have you been provided with the historical data for a particular measure?  Similarly have you got comparisons with similar councils, schools, public bodies?  You don’t always need to rely on your own organisation for this data.  You will often find that national data sets are published by government or others.  You should have already had these pointed out to you – if not you should ask.

Methodological triangulation:  Performance reporting is only one way to assess how well a service or project is doing.  Observations of the service in action (perhaps as a ‘mystery customer’), interviews and focus groups with those providing or receiving the service, looking at examples of the paperwork, anonymised case files or, in schools, book scrutiny, are some alternative ways of getting a feel for a service.  Finally, and critically, the conversations you have with citizens and service users are a really valuable source of information.  The stories you year on the street, at the school gate and on the doorstep may be anecdotal but they are a legitimate method of evidence gathering.  At the very least these types of story can start helpful conversations at committee or board meetings.

Investigator triangulation:  It’s always helpful to have more than one set of eyes on a problem.  As a scrutineer you already provide an valuable extra perspective – even if it’s simply asking the right questions.  Other external perspectives can also be useful.  Inspectors and auditors may have produced reports for your particular service or public body.  They may even be willing to come and talk to you.  Other people with a useful perspective include those from national government, professional bodies, community groups, organisations representing service users and academics.  Remember, good governance needs good conversations.

Using triangulation

Denzin uses the term multiple triangulation to describe a mix of all of the above – as a good scrutineer this is what you should be aiming for.  Of course you will need to be selective in what you look at and how you triangulate – better to do a few things well than try and do too much.

While you will know best what works best for you in your circumstances there is always room to experiment with something new.  If it works you can do more of it.  If not then try something else.

It’s also worth talking to your fellow scrutineers in other councils, schools and public bodies to find out what they do.  There is also no reason to stick to your own sector – the triangulation technique is one that works across all aspects of public governance.

And of course the aim here is not to catch people out or undermine them – as well as making a difference for those on the receiving end, good scrutiny should be welcomed by those who are being scrutinised as something that helps them do their job better.  Everybody wins.



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Good public governance needs good conversations

As a councillor, school governor or member of a public body, you want to feel confident that you are doing the right things in the right way.  While professional advice and good practice guides are important to have, it’s your conversations that will help you most.  But what is a conversation, why do they matter and what makes them so powerful?  

What’s a conversation?

By conversation I mean something more than a friendly chat.

It’s a term to describe the interactions you have with people outside of your council or governing body.  It might involve meeting in person, phone calls, video calls, exchanges of emails or communication through social media.  A conversation might be a combination of all of these things.

Your most important conversations will be with central or local government, your regulators, your managers, your partners and crucially, the public.

A conversation is always a two way process.  It’s good to explain what you are doing and share things of course.  It’s even better to give account of your work.  But the real value of a conversation is what you bring back in, what you learn and what you change as a result.  Sometimes conversations can even create something new, something neither side expected, some new idea or inspiration.  That’s why effective listening is so important.

Conversations can be formal or informal.  The word conversation suggests something more informal, but of course that might not always work.

It’s good to have councillors, governors, members present when any part of a conversation is taking place – and all of them if you can.  Of course this isn’t always possible but everyone should be kept in the loop even if they can’t be there in person.  And a conversation should be captured in some way so it can be shared as openly as possible.

And your conversations don’t all have to take place in the town hall, board room or school hall.  Particularly when talking to the public it can be better to get out of your usual, comfortable meeting place.  You are likely to have a better conversation if you do.

Why have conversations?

Some of the reasons to have conversations include:

  1. Confidence:  Talking to the right people can reassure you that you are doing the right things in the right way.  You can also check that you haven’t missed anything important or some major change heading your way.
  2. Inspiration:  Some conversations can remind you why you do what you do.  Positive stories give you the energy to carry on and the emotional support you sometimes need for your work.
  3. Noticing: What you are already doing well – sometimes it takes an outside perspective to help you to do this.
  4. Tailoring: Making sure you can adapt good practice to fit your own unique circumstances.
  5. Solutions:  Sharing challenges with others outside of your normal meetings can help to suggest new things you might want to try.  Sometimes it’s the conversation itself that generates the new thinking.
  6. Influence:  Sharing your hopes and ideas with others can also lead to changes outside of your public body.  Conversations have the potential to bring about change on both sides.
  7. Values:  Understanding what’s important to others, sharing what matters to you.
  8. Describing: What good looks like – co-creating the future you want to see for your governing body with people who have a stake in that future.
  9. Relationships:  Can be sources of mutual help and support.  Conversations help to build these ties and can lead to new relationships.
  10. Creative tension: Sometimes different conversations might tell you different things, but  these tensions can be a source of creativity and innovation, of challenge and development.

By paying attention to why you are having a conversation and what you want to get out of it, you can more easily decide what questions you want ask.  You can give structure and purpose to your annual meeting with your regulator, your quarterly update from your operations manager or your visit to the community association.

The power of conversations

Conversations are much more than simply an exchange of information.

As many psychologists and social scientists will tell you, our social reality and our knowledge about the world is constructed by our interactions with others.  This means that the way councillors, school governors and members of public bodies go about their business is also constructed by their interactions.

In other words, how you think and act as a member of a public body has a lot to do with the conversations that you have.

It should also be liberating to know that you can create your own version of good governance through your conversations – a version that fits your needs and circumstances.  A version that is easier to understand and achieve because you made it.

Getting your governance arrangements off the shelf maybe easier in the short term but will be less satisfying later on.

So, whether you are thinking about one aspect of your governance arrangements, or reviewing all of them, it really is worth making sure that your conversations are the right ones and that they are good ones.



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