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It Isn't Just Football Managers Who Obsess Over League Tables

24/06/2014 16:14 BST | Updated 24/08/2014 10:59 BST

Roy Hodgson will be viewing league tables rather grumpily at the moment - especially the one with England rock bottom of World Cup Group H. Around the world people are measuring every permutation--Brazil fans panicking on Monday night as Mexico threatened to take top spot on goal difference, Italy and Uruguay tangling on Tuesday to gain the much-coveted second place (and avoid the entirely useless third).

Yes, league tables are endlessly fascinating. Who is up, who is down, what you have to do to get higher.

But when they have been used as an attempt to get public services functioning better they have been extremely controversial. Some is almost ethical in its reasoning. It is simply wrong for public services to be ranked, let alone for the rankings to be published. Cooperation is what we want, not the competition that league tables enable and encourage: competition distorts behaviour, puts professionals at each other's throats, implies 'losers' and makes people 'game' the system.

Other objections focus more on the argument that it is hard to know what metric to rank many public services against in a way that is totally fair. If my population group is more 'challenging' than yours, we should not be ranked on who gets more of that population into work but on our net 'added value' in helping them progress. Equally, while Chrystal Palace don't argue that given they paid a lot less for their players than Man City they should somehow have their points total adjusted, in public services, if I have more and better staff than you it is argued unfair not to take that into account. In any case, unlike football, the outcomes of many public services are 'soft' and tricky to measure.

Despite these arguments, league tables became popular for a time in an effort to drive innovation and productivity in the public services. As I argued in a recent RSA lecture they were often seen as an attempt to get the system power of choice into public services - consumer or voter choice.

For instance when league tables and tough Ofsted inspections and reports were introduced for schools it was coupled with more choice mechanisms and there was a view that parents would decide on the basis of the data where to send their children. With money following pupils, you had a quasi-market system all ready to go.

But while on the margin there was some of this 'choice' effect, I think a stronger impact was about pride for the heads and governing bodies. They did not want to be seen down the league table: they did not want to face colleagues feeling they were judged less good than them. It was a real driver and with real effects, perhaps the ultimate 'nudge' approach.

Of course some was a bit more than nudge, with heads that failed being likely to face the chop, but the mechanism of comparison was still what was driving the system through the effects on providers and bosses rather than through consumer and users responding. Either way, academic analysis by Prof Gwyn Bevan and colleagues at LSE shows it certainly seemed to work to raise standards.

The Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) that I had a hand in developing, brought in as a star rating system for local councils, worked in a similar way. It was not that citizens voted on the basis on whether their council was getting a three or a one star rating, but that CEOs and councillors did not like to be worse than their peers. CEOs were sacked if they failed and those who had achieved three stars elsewhere were 'bought' as though they were star footballers. As many in local government will recall, it all went crazy for a while as councils tried to sort out the Gianfranco Zolas from the Eric Djemba-Djembas.

Clearly there are major problems with league tables and they are never going to be in some perfect sense 'right' and 'fair'. But the lesson for me is that forcing more comparison between public services and creating debate, 'competition for esteem' and a heightened sense of interest in performance is bound to be a helpful thing and one we should not throw away.

League tables may never make public services as much talked about down the pub as England's latest frustrating performance, but if they can make a contribution to better public services, we should not let them be abandoned.