Thursday, December 18, 2008

If only setting targets made it all better...

As a civil servant, I've experienced a lot of target setting over the years. It tends to replace genuine management, as it allows senior staff to give the impression of doing something whilst not requiring them to do anything other than collect data (actually, someone else does that for them, usually the person doing the work). Think of it as getting the slaves who built the pyramids to whip themselves for slacking.

Inevitably, what happens is that staff behaviour is distorted towards delivering those areas which are targetted at the expense of everything else, regardless of the impact. If you want to emphasise the distortion, you introduce performance related pay linked to specific targets, a favourite of central government over the past twenty years.

It becomes more important to vouch those activities than to look beond the 'target horizon', until you reach a point where people stop looking altogether. And here, the Baby P scandal puts its head above the parapet. Without the benefit of a background in social work, and without the benefit of the findings of the inquiry, I can guess that everyone concerned was satisfied that they had met their targets, and sight of the actual aim of the exercise, i.e. to protect vulnerable children, was lost.

Last year, a target was announced with regard to an area of work I specialise in. It was an entirely laudable goal, and one that I supported. However, there was no means to measure whether or not it was being achieved, and no context in which performance against that target could be properly judged. On asking a senior colleague what was planned to remedy this issue, I was told that it was hoped that something might be set up. It still hasn't been, although on the basis of my personal data, I know that I have met our goal. I have assured management that we are currently on target, but they only really have my word for it.

For some time, I've been arguing that political parties, Liberal Democrats included, need to decide what government is for. Once you decide that, what you do in government stems from some sense of philosophical cohesion and consistency. In terms of what the public sector does, a slightly refined question applies - what is your function?

If target setting is a tacit acknowledgement that you can't do everything that you are required to, can you successfully reduce the number of things that you actually can do, or can you drop areas of work without causing hurt to those that you serve? Alternatively, can you obtain the resources you need to deliver the whole job?

Ironically, there is a group of people capable of making the best decisions under such circumstances. Generally abused, under-resourced and ill-equipped, those of us on the front line are forced to make decisions about resource use every day. We see the impact of those decisions on those that we serve, and we have the potential flexibility to react quickly to day to day situations. If anyone is serious about improving our public services, they'll find a way to harness that opportunity.

Perhaps if the Government set another target...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I totally agree.

You should most definitely read "Systems Thinking in the Public Sector" by Prof John Seddon (I have just got to chapter 3). It will blow your mind.

He argues that targets and the 'command and control' approach which they represent are the root cause of much of the dysfunction of govt.

If we get this wrong (or fail even to recognize it as an issue) and we will remain irrelevant and out of power. Get it right and we will have a distinctive and attractive message that chimes with peoples' experience of modern Britain.

Incidentally, I also agree with your suggested solution. Working in the private sector, I pushed as much responsibility as possible down to the front line (backed naturally with training and support). It worked a treat.