Measuring and comparing the performance of water operators via benchmarking is a relatively new practice. Having been popularized in the private sector in the 1970s it migrated to public services in the 1990s, driven largely by bureaucrats and policy makers in a handful of highly centralized institutions. It is now widespread in the water sector, but there are emerging concerns about its commercial bias and relatively undemocratic processes.
This paper reviews the history of benchmarking in the water sector, discusses arguments for and against its use, and proposes an alternative performance evaluation framework that may help to better account for universality, sustainability and democratic forms of governance, particularly with public water operators in low-income settings in the global South. I argue that shared forms of performance measurement can be useful, but only if they are more explicit about recognizing local difference, promoting public awareness and advancing equity. The paper also asks why existing water benchmarking systems do not explicitly differentiate between public and private water operators, and proposes indicators that may help promote non-commercialized water services. The proposals are necessarily preliminary – calling for more empirical and theoretical research on the topic – with the intent of stimulating debate while at the same time suggesting possible alternative benchmarking frameworks.