Time Well Spent: How the ONS is improving the measurement of public service productivity

Children in a classroom

The ONS is launching a new pilot ‘time-use survey’ for the public sector, which will give us much more detailed information than was previously available about how workers in the public sector spend their time, including travel, administration and delivering services directly. Ellys Monahan tells us what the survey is designed to show and why we need the information. 

Last summer the Chancellor of the Exchequer tasked the National Statistician with improving the measures of public service productivity. As most public services aren’t charged directly to their users, this important area of the economy tends to be harder to measure than the private sector.  

As public services currently equate to around 20% of the whole economy it’s very important that statistics in this area provide a true reflection of changes in productivity. 

At the moment it is difficult to measure and consistently track real changes in the reporting of productivity levels of public services, with only around two thirds of our measures having ‘quality adjustments’. Quality adjustments enable estimates to move beyond simple output measures, such as the number of children in school, and instead look at what is actually delivered, such as the qualifications attained. 

As the Review takes steps to improve these data, we are also looking to explore ‘under the bonnet’ of what drives public service productivity.  

For many years the ONS has run a Time Use Survey for adults across the UK. Time use surveys ask people to complete diaries detailing how they spend time during their day, recording how long is spent doing activities such as working, travelling and household chores as well as eating or exercising.  

We are now launching a pilot time use survey for the public sector, which will ask up to 7,000 public service workers, ranging from teachers to Civil Servants to prison workers, to log their activities from their working day.  

Previous analysis of our broader time use survey, covering both public and private sector workers, showed that public sector workers reported having to spend more than an hour extra a day undertaking administrative tasks than private sector workers. This new survey will help shine a light on areas such as this and other differences, with the findings helping to improve public service productivity in the years ahead.  

In addition, we are also undertaking qualitative research, including focus groups and detailed one-to-one interviews of public service workers, to get even more detail about how public sector workers spend their time. As with other ONS surveys, these data will be anonymised and published only at aggregate levels, to protect data privacy. 

Increasing our understanding of how public sector workers spend their time is crucial to our wider plan of improving measures of public service productivity. We want to ensure we are able to measure it consistently across public services and to measure change as comprehensively in the public sector as is done for the private sector.  

If you work in the public sector or are interested in finding out more about the survey, please email hhsa@ons.gov.uk by 15 January.  

Ellys Monahan

Ellys Monahan is the Assistant Deputy Director, Household Income and Wealth at the Office for National Statistics