Rubbish smokescreens: performance indicators and flytipping

By - Thursday 19th May, 2016

There are statistics and then there are statistics. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is the key to successful decision-making, writes Robert Ward

Performance statistics are the voters’ friend. They help us to judge how well our politicians are doing the job for which they were elected.

For that very reason, politicians and statistics don’t mix well, because politicians want to get (re-)elected. Their message in a nutshell is that good news is due to them, bad news is the fault of their opponents or external influences.

If the truth is otherwise, then somehow that has to be obscured. Misuse of statistics is often part of that smokescreen.

How does the public separate what is important from what is less so?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS), amongst others, collects and presents objective data. Other organisations, many with their own political leanings, then interpret that data. Some also collect their own.

That generates a blizzard of different numbers and interpretations. How then does the public separate what is important from what is less so? How do we understand the state of play and whether we are on an improving or declining path?

Take the recently released crime figures for England and Wales. In 2015, there were an estimated 6.4 million incidents of crime against households and resident adults aged 16 and over, a 7% decrease from the previous year.

Is the good news on crime due to government action?

This was largely driven by theft offences (down 7%) and criminal damage (down 14%). But there was a 7% increase in police recorded crime compared with the previous year, thought mostly to be due to a greater proportion of crimes being recorded.

Improved recording is thought to have particularly affected some categories of violent crime. There was a 27% rise in reported ‘violence against the person’ offences, largely through increases in the ‘violence without injury’ subgroup. Violent crime estimates showed no statistically significant year-on-year change.

Bottom line: total crime is down, violent crime unchanged. Quoting the increase in police reported violent crime is therefore a smokescreen. But is this good news due to government action?

Put simply, the council’s strategy is to educate, engage and enforce

Crime is too big a challenge, so let’s take a smaller subject closer to home: the state of Croydon’s streets. First, we must distinguish between leading and lagging indicators. Think of traffic lights: an amber light is a leading indicator for a red light. It tells us that a red light is next. On the other hand, the amber light is a lagging indicator for the green light. It tells us that the green light has passed.

Put simply, the council’s strategy is to educate, engage and enforce: educate people that littering is a bad thing, engage the support of local people, and enforce fines on wrongdoers.

A hearts-and-minds campaign includes duty-of-care visits and the like (to educate and engage) with enforcement through issuing of fixed penalty notices (FPNs) and prosecutions – all leading indicators. Sometime later, if the strategy is successful, we would expect to see a reduction in the number of flytips (a lagging indicator).

But where does ‘%cleared’ fit in? The answer is that it doesn’t

The council’s primary indicators for this strategy are the number of reported flytips, the percentage cleared within forty-eight hours (‘%cleared’), and the number of FPNs issued.

But where does ‘%cleared’ fit in? The answer is that it doesn’t. It isn’t part of an educate-engage-enforce strategy at all. It might be a key indicator if the strategy was to get really good at cleaning up flytips quickly… but that isn’t the strategy.

The ‘%cleared’ parameter was not collected under the previous Tory administration although Labour now points to an unsubstantiated figure of 3% as the Tory performance. Even now, I cannot see that it is a useful indicator. If it were useful it would be as a lagging indicator, so past performance would be irrelevant anyway. This is certainly smokescreen.

Sending out more dustcarts may be the wrong choice, but it is a quick-fix if the streets are getting worse

Where having a performance indicator that doesn’t fit with your strategy hurts you is in the allocation of resources. No strategy is perfect. Things may not work as you expect, so you have to modify your approach by, for example, reallocating resources.

In our example, we should put more effort into one or other of educate-engage-enforce. However, if we have the inconsistent indicator ‘%cleared’, we may put more effort into quick clear-ups.

Sending out more dustcarts may be the wrong choice, but it is a quick-fix if the streets are getting worse. Criticism is easy to deflect – how can the opposition oppose more street cleaning? But you are ignoring the message that your strategy isn’t working, and expending valuable resources on something that longer term isn’t fixing the problem.

Yet the number of flytips is increasing, by my estimate by some 30%

Looking at the most recent figures for March 2016, both the number of duty of care visits and of FPNs issued in the last three months are roughly the same as for the same period in 2015. Yet the number of flytips is increasing, by my estimate by some 30%, although the council has clouded the issue by changing the parameters. The strategy clearly isn’t working.

The smokescreens that we might expect, especially as we approach the next council election in 2018, are short term boosts to leading indicators like FPNs and the incoherent ‘%cleared’. Sending out the dustcarts and environmental health officers is fine, but the parameter we should be focusing on is the number of flytips. That is the measure of success.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Robert Ward

    I wrote this article a while back. Croydon Council has just published April 2016 statistics which show a 25% increase year-on-year in confirmed flytips, confirming the increasing trend.

    April has also shown a jump in the number of flytips cleared within 48 hours to above the Council’s target of 85%. This is the first time for many months that this target was exceeded. As i point out in this article, this is not a meaningful indicator of the Council’s strategy.

    We will have to see whether this clearance rate is sustained. I could be wrong but my first thought is that the council has thrown money at it to get the number down. That would illustrate the point that i make in the article that the wrong indicator being targeted causes you to deploy resources poorly.

  • Charles Barber

    Surely the council has two strategies, to improve the appearance of Croydon by clearing up fly tip rubbish as quickly as possible, and to prevent the amount of fly-tipping. It is alas far easier to do the first than the second. I would be interested to know where you’re getting your fly-tipping statistics from, and wonder if it is possible that the fly-tipping figures have gone up because the Council have made it easier to report such incidents (and people are more likely to do so, if they can be fairly sure it will cleared reasonably quickly). I have been assured by the Council that there have been more prosecutions for fly-tippng in the last couple of years, but catching the culprits is both a time consuming and expensive exercise. I do believe they are trying but with the current budget restrictions, I fear it is not a problem that will not be solved as quickly as most of us would like.

    • Robert Ward

      Thank you Charles.

      Strategy is the over-arching long term plan to achieve the objective. You can only have one of those. The objective here is for Croydon to have cleaner streets.

      There are a number of ways of achieving that. There are two basic options – stop the litter being dropped or pick it up quickly. Then there are combinations such as get people to drop it in places (bins, etc) that make it easy to pick up. The Council should have evaluated those options and chosen one – that is then their strategy, which can be tweaked on the basis of evidence as we go along.

      As I try to show with their own statistics (available here: ). It isn’t working and the Council are just making excuses.

      You are right to question whether improved reporting influences the data. It does, but usually only for a relatively short period. We are long past that.

      The Council statistics do show increased prosecutions but the numbers are tiny. The prosecutions also lump together a lot of other offences.Prosecutions are indeed costly, Fixed Penalty Notices much less so, but that should be part of your evaluation when you chose a strategy. Just spend more money is not good enough, you should have known that in the first place. In my opinion the FPNs and prosecutions as they are being applied at the moment are window-dressing.

      Sadly, my observation is that the Council does not have a strategy to fix the problem. What they had was a political strategy: Create a fuss on the issue to get elected in 2014, now muddle around blaming the Tories, not enough money and a shrug of the shoulders that flytipping is bad everywhere. That’s not good enough.

      • Charles Barber

        Dear Robert,
        I can not agree with the idea that you can only have one strategy to try and achieve an objective. Often, an objective may only have some chance of success if a combination of strategies are used. As regards ‘the litter problem’, the overarching strategy I would suggest would be to change enough hearts and minds, as to make the dropping of litter socially unacceptable – To expect though the changing of hearts and minds of a certain number of Croydon residents to happen swiftly is I fear rather unrealistic.

        You talk about two major options as if they were two choices. Both of the options you mention need to be implemented to have much chance of success. You are more likely to stop litter being dropped if there are enough bins collected reasonably regularly for people to drop their litter into. It has also been shown that litter is much more likely to attract more litter, so regularly cleaning it up can help the overall level of litter abuse, though I myself would also like to see more fixed penalty notices given for this offence. I also believe that suitable and imaginative signage can help in this respect.

        You fail to mention the Council policy (let’s not argue over whether it’s also another strategy) of encouraging residents to become Green Champions. Although this is not likely to have quick results, I believe it will gradually change hearts and minds in local areas. Local residents can perhaps play as important a role as the Council in this respect.

        Having said all this, the statistics do not look good but fly-tipping is a very difficult problem to tackle, unless you have lots of money to pay people to sit undercover in cars at potential sites. It is very easy to criticize the Council, and I’m sure they’d be pleased to hear of an alternative strategy, that has a proven record of success. Do you have one?

        You might be interested to know that in an attempt to play a role in tackling this problem, I have set up something called The Campaign for a Cleaner, Greener, more Beautiful Croydon – . For although, I may sound as though I’m defending the Council, I do believe they could do more, but suspect they are only likely to do so if reasonably gentle pressure is continually applied. That reminds me, that perhaps I should contact them again to ask when the rubbish bin for the row of shops opposite my flat, will finally arrive.

        Of course, whether the person that dropped the bag of litter that I can see on the pavement opposite, would have used it if it had been there, it is sadly impossible to say.

        • Robert Ward

          Thank you Charles.
          I think precision of wording is important, which is a theme through many of my articles, especially on flytipping. What you are calling strategies are tactics.

          Where I would agree with you is that changing hearts and minds is a reasonable summary of what I think part of the strategy is (‘educate-engage’). It would be impossible only to pursue that so collection of flytips has to be done too. My first major point (and I have waited for some time to conclude this so there is a decent dataset) is that it is not working. Flytips are now significantly worse.

          The two major choices I mention are not a question of choose one or the other, although both would be legitimate choices, it is to understand where between these extremes is the right place to be.

          Encouraging people to be clean, green champions is fine, and I agree any effect is going to be long term – it always is with hearts-and-minds campaigns. What I fail to see how this will get through to the flytippers any time soon.

          The second major point I make is that you must have priorities so you know where to switch resources. If everything is important, then nothing is important, you just want more money spent on everything and that’s not good management. This is where I now think the Council is falling down. It’s not working and they don’t appear to know what to do other than blame the world and blame the last Tory administration.

          Regarding alternative strategies I have been working through options for some time, indeed my articles on the subject are part of my working out. Unfortunately as a member of the public I do not have access to the Council data (FOI is possible, I suppose) but if I could change one thing based on what I know now, it is the ‘enforce’ aspect, which I think is largely window dressing.

          Looking through what is publicly available I see a very small number of enforcement actions. I have data showing Croydon had 700 in a one year period, Newham had more than 8,000.

          I also see some of the actions are number manipulation: an enforcement officer spending an afternoon hovering around a recycling site that was full and fining people who left their recycling there, or hanging around New Addington fining people for spitting on the floor. These are taking the easy route to get the numbers up and in my view punishing the wrong people.

          • Charles Barber

            Dear Robert,
            I don’t think there is much point in quibbling over what are tactics and what are strategies. If you have a range of tactics to achieve one objective, that for me becomes a strategy, but I suspect we may end up chasing a fairly meaningless tale if we continue arguing over semantics.

            From my point of view, there has to be at least two objectives because the problem of fly-tipping and the problem of littering, though related, are very different problems, that need different strategies (or if you prefer tactics) to deal with.

            Where I agree with you, is that there could be much more done as regards suitable enforcement for those that litter the streets. I think the Council’s attempt to solve this problem has been rather half-hearted and inadequate. I know they did employ a company called Kingdom to fine people on the spot for littering, but there were only two enforcement officers, and they were perhaps not as sensitive as they might have been with some of the enforcement measures they took. Often, it seems to me, that the Council is too scared if it gets any adverse publicity. From my point of view there should have been more enforcement officers, movable signs and the experiment should have lasted longer.

            It would also be useful to look at the actions of other councils such as Newham, to see not only as you have already done, how many more prosecutions they had, but also if that had a major overall effect on the amount of litter dropped.

            I am assuming most of the Newham fines were for general littering rather than fly-tipping. It is much easier, if one’s heart is set on it to catch pedestrians, than those with vehicles. Stuart Collins has said to me that it is hard to get good enough evidence with CCTV cameras but if other councils have succeeded in this way, it would be much harder for him to make such a claim. He made it sound as though most of the fly-tippers that have been caught, have been caught by Council enforcement officers, spending hours in cars, waiting at potential fly-tipping spots.

            I am hoping that my little group will have a meeting with both Stuart Collins and Veolia, sometime in September or October and I’d be very pleased if you’d come along. My email is and if you’d like to be on our emailing list, please feel free to get in touch.

            I fully agree that blaming previous administrations isn’t particularly useful, and actually see tackling such problems as something that the majority of people form all sides of the political spectrum, might be able to unite behind.

            It would be useful to know how Newham achieved its high rate of enforcements, and how much, if anything it cost. The company Kingdom claim that as the council get a percentage of money from the fines, using their company can actually save the Council money.

            Lastly, we’ll be having stall at The Croydon Environmental Fair in Wandle Park on the 11th of June, so if you’re attending the event, please come and have a chat with us.

          • Robert Ward

            Thank you Charles.

            I agree that littering and flytipping are not the same thing but that they should be treated in an integrated manner.

            I also agree that it would be very good to know both the costs and effectiveness of what Newham, and other high enforcement Councils have done. I do not have that but in deciding the best course of action it would be important to have either some data or a conversation with Newham, preferably both.

            I yet again agree with you that the Council is scared of adverse publicity. Evil flytippers and landlords are easy targets but residents (voters) who dump bags on the street are in the too difficult pile.

            I would have come to your previous meeting but was on holiday at the time. Happy to join in, will send you an email shortly.