Sunday 4 October 2009

The Trouble with Targets

Skimming through the blogs this morning (far more interesting than the papers, I think), I came across “The Tory Diary” and Tim Montgomerie’s report on David Cameron’s interview with Andrew Marr.

The interview covered subjects like Europe (of course, the question of the Lisbon Treaty), reducing the deficit , inheritance tax, the 50p tax and other general tax matters, David Cameron’s personal wealth, and for me the most interesting matter (it being my field), the question of unemployment.

It seems that the Tory policy is as follows, and I crib unashamedly from Tim’s piece:

The Conservative leader promises a "big, bold and radical" scheme to get Britain back to work. There will be payment-by-results for voluntary and other agencies that get the long-term out-of-work into work, including an assessment of all people on incapacity benefit.

So, being in the business, I am delighted to hear that “big bold steps” will be taken to get Britain (and I’m assuming, Scotland) back to work. There is no doubt that unemployment and its attendant poverty, are the cause of many of our problems, and much misery.

It’s how he’s going to do it that worries me. I really want to put on record that “payment by results” doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter what kind of organisation is operating the system; charity, voluntary body or a private sector company. For this work you need to have knowledgeable, hard-working and versatile staff. You need people who are comfortable working with a wide range of people. They need to be paid decent money. Many of the clients that they will be sent will be hard if not impossible to place, particularly with economic conditions the way they are.

Payment by results means that management will put ever-higher placement targets on the staff in order to make enough money to keep the organisation afloat, and make a profit.

There are a couple ways round this for staff, of course.

You choose to only work with easily-to-place people, people who could easily get employment under their own steam. In doing this, of course, you ignore the people who really need help, the ones the public money is being spent to help; or you cheat on your figures and hope like hell the sporadic and extremely light touch auditing system never finds you out. Government, after all, only ever wants to hear good news about these schemes. News of fraud to achieve targets would be bad news.

Time after time the UK government’s obsession with “targets” has been proved to be wanting. Schools concentrate only on those who will give them qualifications, leaving the less able to struggle to write their own names. Hospitals push forward ingrown toenail and cataract operations which can be done in minutes, boosting their throughput targets, but ignoring the hip replacements that take hours. And in the social aid sector, people who do not desperately need help are helped, because they will provide “outcomes”, whilst those with real problems, those who will require months or years of work before any result is evident are pushed to the side.

I’ve watched it happen.

I had hoped an end to Labour would have meant an end to the razzmatazz of the “targets and results” cult. Once again UK politics proves to be a disappointment.


  1. The targets culture won't improve under the Tories either Munguin. This is one thing that has to be done away with in an independent Scotland. The other 4,999 we can discuss later.

  2. No I think it will be much worse, as Mr Cameron already seems to be hinting at here. I can well imagine that any hints before the election will transfer into somnething 10 times worse after it when he safely has the keys to number 10.

  3. I hope but am not confident that the conservatives will remove targets and instead go understand the problems and remove the things in the way of good performance.

    An article in the Systems Thinking Review shows the damage that targets are doing in public sector services, with evidence.

    Perhaps all we can do is hope?

  4. Subrosa,

    You're bang on the button. The harm they do knows no bounds and as the interview shows (payment by results is all about targets) the Tories are no better.

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  6. Freethinker,

    Payment by results inevitably means that targets will be set. Private sector involvement means that a profit motive will be part of the target setting. I pity anyone made unemployed and having to go through this. Worse still it seems that to pay for it all Dave from Eton is going to force the sick into work with targets there too. I don't think hope will do us much good. An independent, fair and decent Scotland is the only answer I can see.

    Thanks for the link. I'll have a look at it.