Hitting the bulls-eyes
Nearly everything we do is subject to a government target – but are we getting things right? Scott Dickinson suggests a better way of aiming.
New start magazine
The performance management culture in public services has grown like topsy and it appears that the sector’s not for turning. But one result has been an equivalent growth in confusion and frustration as greater demands are made on targets and indicators.
There have been three basic phases in the history of indicators and targets in public administration. In the beginning, the focus of public management was on inputs and processes: metaphorically; it asked how many men did it take to mow a meadow and why did one of them need a dog? It then set a target of reducing the number of men or at least letting the dog go.
The new public management approach added ‘outputs’ to the list: how often did the men mow the meadow and how short was the grass? It then set targets for greater frequency of mows at no extra cost.
New Labour added outcomes to the litany: what were the long term health and environmental impacts of the mowed meadow?
The degree of difficulty encountered in identifying sensible indicators (and targets) depends on how easy it is to specify an activity and how often it occurs. For example, you can measure the police’s ability to catch murderers and get them convicted, but it is tough to measure the ‘deterrent effect’ or its contribution to our sense of personal security.
The more complex the issue, the less likely it is that data wiI1lead us to the (or even any) answer, and the more we enter the realm of judgements: political, managerial and inspectoral.
The argument over the relevance of targets is sometimes seen as a battle between, on the one hand, ‘whole system approaches’ that capture ‘the big picture’, but have a problem with individual accountability; and service or departmental targets, which focus on an area of direct responsibilities.
Both approaches are now nm in parallel. They share flaws: they are vulnerable to manipulation, or fraud; and indicators often cease to behave as you expect, once you target them.
This much can be explained within the public policy field, but I suggest wider influences are at work Sociologists (Beck and Giddens) and political scientists (Stoker) offer us another perspective. Beck (Risk society: towa1dr a new modernity, 1992) and Giddens (The consequences of modernity, 1990) draw attention to the government’s awareness that its policies may cause problems -think benefit dependency. It therefore demands information so that it can adapt to changing circumstances.
Stoker (Transforming local governance: from Thatcherism to New Labour, 2004) argues that New Labour sees the world as chaotic, rather than regulated; social relations as involuntary, rather than voluntary; and individual accountability as weak, rather than strong. He characterises this as an ultimately ‘fatalistic’ view of the world. It certainly helps explain the ‘control freakery’.
So monitoring and targets are part of wider changes in society, driven by a heightened sense of risk The targets culture is therefore carrying too much weight, and it is bound to disappoint.
There are some basic areas where indicators and targets do make sense, help people understand what is going on, and make a difference. In such cases they can join with performance management and incentives to effect change. It is also where ‘transactional leadership’, otherwise known as management, takes over from ‘inspirational leadership’, which in theory in the public sector comes from politicians and senior executive officers.
One practical example is Barnet Council’s adaptation of an approach used in New York and Baltimore. First, a dedicated team maps and analyses data to identify issues of concern. Key decision-makers are then gathered and a process of interrogation and exploration is entered into.
Time is set aside to delve down into the causes ‘ of a problem and the role public services can play in resolving it. Actions are decided and their impact monitored. The method has been applied across a range of issues including antisocial behaviour, traffic congestion, waste recycling, and fly-tipping.
The approach has three main merits. First, it doesn’t mystify targets, it uses them to make changes. Second, it doesn’t try to solve the world’s problems, just a particular concern in a particular place. Third, it sticks to getting action by involving all the people concerned, so resolution, not buck-passing, drives the work.
Indicators, targets and monitoring work when applied to transactions. And if applied sensibly, they can be used to identify and diagnose joined-up problems that require joined-up solutions from public services. But as soon as you move into the realm of ideas and political ambitions, like removing child poverty, then targets aren’t really the leadership tool to use.
A division of labour is required. Leaders should set aspirations that inspire, policy wonks should design indicators that track progress on complex, as well as mundane issues, and ‘targets’ should be reserved for management processes and transactions, rather than political visions or indeed personal behaviour.
Scott Dickinson is a senior fellow at the Office for Public Management. This article is based on a recent talk to the Social Market Foundation. Contact:
Source: New start magazine