Martin Roberts, Libraries Service Manager, Citizen Focus, Stockport Council
Following the disruption to library opening hours during the COVID-19 pandemic, Stockport Council’s Library Service Manager Martin Roberts was required to provide regular updates on libraries’ performance figures as part of the libraries' roadmap to recovery. In September 2021, he was tasked with performing an in-depth analysis of his authority’s library performance against similar authorities in England for a report requested by senior management.
The driver for the project was the need to assess and understand the level of budget spend on different areas of the library service in comparison with other local authorities, and analyse the impact of that spending on the performance of Stockport Council’s library service. The analysis and report were intended to create a better, more informed picture of its performance, and present it in a broader context by looking at how other similar authorities perform across a number of key indicators.
“My aim was to try to pull the information together in a way that was rigorous, robust and could be readily demonstrated,” says Roberts. “It was important, too, to be able to present the information clearly so that it could be communicated easily to senior levels within the management of the organisation, but also potentially to elected members and other stakeholders.“ This meant ensuring that he was able to portray some quite complex themes about the library service and its operations to non-specialists in a way that was readily understandable.
“Among the key objectives were to make sure it was factually accurate, displayed professionally, and the credibility/provenance of the information could be demonstrated too,” Roberts explains.
As well as budget spend in areas such as purchasing books, employee salaries and so on, Roberts was also keen to look at other indicators of performance compared with other authorities, such as the number of book issues, opening hours, total book stock, digital and physical visitor counts, number of volunteers and so on. “These are all things we get asked about, the factors around the health of the library service that reflect how it operates not as standalone entity but within its market, compared against other similar local authority services.”
Collating the breadth and variety of data Roberts wanted to include in the report was potentially a major challenge. He explains: “Information sources are now so widespread and kept in so many different locations, if you are trying to compile the data from scratch on individual parts of an authority’s library service and different aspects of its performance, it’s difficult to know where to start and where to go to get definitive, comparable statistics that align across varied local authorities. You need that quality and consistency of information so you can make meaningful comparisons.”
The challenge of sourcing reliable data on individual services also has the potential to be a time-consuming process – and time is a valuable commodity within the sector. “What you really want is information that you can access relatively readily, and that you can use that information without spending endless hours collating it and validating it’s consistency – because, frankly, people don’t have the time to do that anymore.”
For Roberts, the solution came partly from his own experience of compiling statistics for the local authority. “At the library service, we complete the CIPFAstats+ survey returns each year, so we were fully aware of the sort of statistics the were provided to the Institute. In addition, I was talking to colleagues in other authorities about gathering the sort of information we needed and a number of them recommended CIPFAstats+ online data services. At least two of them had already used the service for similar projects for their own authorities, so I had that peer acknowledgement of it as an excellent resource for evidence-based decision-making.“
Roberts got in touch with CIPFA to find out more about the services available. “When I first spoke to CIPFA they were really helpful. We had a conversation to establish how we could access the information, and they were able to take me through everything we required. We were aware of the breadth and depth of statistics CIPFAstats+ had on local authorities’ library services, so we knew the information we needed was there. And because it was recommended by other colleagues, it just seemed to be a bit of a no brainer.”
Collated by CIPFA’s expert team of analysts, the CIPFAstats+ online tool provides a comprehensive range of financial and non-financial data across a wide range of datasets spanning the whole of the public sector. It provides a set of interactive dashboards to provide an intuitive way to interrogate comparative data, with a broad range of analytical and diagnostic functionality.
Having looked at the services available, Roberts concluded that CIPFAstats+ offered the flexibility and usability he required, as well as ensuring confidence in the quality of data used for comparing authorities. His department made the decision to renew its subscription for another year.
For Roberts, CIPFAstats+ provided exactly the solution required for his analysis. “Crucially, you know you can trust the quality, accuracy and consistency of the information available, as it is provided by library authorities – they offer that ‘kitemark’ of quality assurance. As information professionals, we fully understand the importance of accurate and top-quality information, and CIPFAstats+ delivers that.”
Roberts found the tools available were relatively intuitive, and where certain functionality or data requirements were more complex, the CIPFA team was able to provide fast and knowledgeable support to ensure the information was readily accessible. “That helped us to get exactly what we needed from the service when we needed it,” says Roberts. “Time is such a valuable commodity, and CIPFAstats+ means it takes much less time to access the information you require.”
The Nearest Neighbour Model was one of the most valuable tools offered by the service, he explains. “It was incredibly useful and gave us the opportunity to develop comparative data for not only neighbouring authorities but also authorities with similar populations, demographics and so on. it’s useful to be able to reference other locations that are known within the council to be comparator local authorities, and those other comparisons could be done relatively readily.”
Roberts continues: “The other great thing is the ability to break down the results as well. Not only do you have the comparator, you can also narrow that comparator down using other filters via the dashboard, which we found really useful. It’s not only the amount and consistency of the data, it’s also the depth that it allows you to drill down to as well.”
The result for Roberts was the successful completion and delivery of the report to senior management. “It was very well received, and it’s now something we plan to do every year, using updated CIPFAstats+. It was very useful for me too – it provided good context around how our library service is performing, particularly coming out of COVID, so we can ensure the library service is in the best place possible.”
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