A benchmark is a level of achievement against which organizations can measure their own progress. Benchmarks may be used for comparisons of organizational processes against an internal or external standard. It is an improvement technique that has evolved from private sector management practices.  

Businesses have used benchmarking as a management tool to competitively compare the performance of its processes to those of others. Competitive benchmarking aims to identify top performers and their best practices that can then be adapted by others in order to improve quality and productivity.

In the public sector, benchmarking is a useful instrument for performance measurement. It is most often used to compare service levels (police response time, the cost of snow removal, citizen satisfaction with road conditions, etc.)  to those of other jurisdictions.

A critical component of collaborative benchmarking programs is the development of standard measures in order to guarantee the comparability of data across jurisdictions.  For example, do the costs required to maintain a police vehicle per mile traveled include or exclude the cost of the employment benefits paid to the mechanics?  In order to ensure that these standards are maintained by participating jurisdictions there typically needs to be a formal process for collecting, validating and sharing the data.  Many collaborative efforts, or consortiums have been developed across the United States and Canada that define measures and require member jurisdictions collect, record, and share data on those measures.  The following are three examples of collaborative benchmarking efforts.

Example:  International City/County Management Association’s Center for Performance Measurement (ICMA, CPM)

The ICMA Center for Performance Measurement (CPM) was created in 1994 at the encouragement of local governments seeking leadership and oversight in developing accurate data about the quality and effectiveness of service delivery. CPM was formed as a consortium of local governments, thus facilitating the opportunity for members to exchange information and forge strategic partnerships with other jurisdictions. CPM currently assists over 150 counties, cities, and towns of all sizes with the collection, analysis, and application of performance information. The program evaluates performance measures in 15 service areas, including: fire and emergency management, highway and road maintenance, housing, library services, refuse and recycling and youth services. The project facilitates interagency benchmarking by allowing participants to use its online database to customize their own comparisons based on population, climate, urban density, method of service provision, community demographics, and other characteristics.

Example:  The North Carolina Benchmarking Project Initiative

As part of an effort to find ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery, a group of North Carolina municipalities joined together with the School of Government and the North Carolina Local Government Budget Association to create an ongoing project to compare performance and cost data for selected governmental services. This joint undertaking is known as the North Carolina Benchmarking Project and has become the cornerstone many of its members’ performance measurement programs. Benchmarking allows members track performance and cost data and make changes based on both internal and external comparisons over time. For example, if a jurisdiction notices that the rate of police and fire false alarms is higher than its peers, it can take efforts to reduce occurrences.

Related links: Case Study – City of Salisbury, NC

Example:  Council of Great City Schools Performance Measurement and Benchmarking Project

The Council of Great City Schools, the nation’s coalition of large urban public school systems, initiated the Performance Measurement and Benchmarking Project in 2003. In the face of pressure to improve performance and regain the public’s confidence, the Council responded by creating this project as a major multiyear effort to identify, assess, and recognize excellence in the business and financial operations of the Council’s members.   The Council, in collaboration with school district experts, decided to measure performance initially in five key functional areas: transportation, food services, maintenance and operations, procurement and supply chain, safety and security. Over the long run, the project will be implemented in four functional areas: operations, finance, human resources, and information technology. The work in each area will include five major phases: 1) identification of key performance measures, 2) establishment of a commonly accepted measurement methodology, 3) creation and implementation of a measurement survey, 4) analysis and reporting of comparative data, and 5) assessment of effective management practices that produce superior performance.  Initial results of this work will be presented at the Council's 2008 Legislative Conference.
The Council has recognized that while collecting and analyzing performance data in education has intrinsic value, benchmarking from city-to-city can have special benefits. The Council advocates that benchmarking and the use of better data can help to spur accountability for results, clarify goals and priorities, measure progress, enhance transparency and public trust, and improve understanding of various policy options.