Targets are the tools of command and control
The public service reform agenda has taught us to focus more on outputs and outcomes, to be more people-centred, and to delegate. We talk about coaching, training, diversity, and empowerment. These are changes for the better, but we are stuck inside a model in which the bosses do the thinking and the workers wield the screwdrivers.
This is the thinking of an old industrial system of command and control, in which decision-making was separated from work. As the scale and complexity of public services has grown, managers have had to abandon the attempt to control the individual activities of their staff, and now use target-setting to try to control the organisation.
Why targets don’t do what they are intended for
When you do think about why we have targets, it turns out that the reasons are not very good.
- “targets motivate people”
On the whole, they don’t. Most people – especially public servants – already want to do a good job. It is conceit to think that setting a target is going to make someone work harder. When targets do cause people to behave differently, it is usually to do something perverse to meet the numerical target.
- “targets set direction”
It is important for everyone in the organisation to know and understand what the organisation is trying to achieve. But that should mean getting on with the work that really matters. Targets turn people’s attention to being seen to meet targets instead.
Why targets do harm
Targets are damaging because they:
- focus attention on the wrong aspects of the work
- create incentives to do things which are not in the interests of the customers
- impose costs of collecting and reporting information
- allow managers to abdicate their responsibility to provide real leadership
- erode morale.
There are countless examples across the public sector where targets have led to perverse behaviours, from health to prisons. Some result in grand policy failures. More often, the targets merely lead to behaviour which corrodes the quality of the service to the customer.
Could we cure all this by setting better targets?
Some would say that these problems would disappear if we set targets that are really well aligned with our objectives. Wouldn’t that eliminate perverse incentives, and help to ensure that everyone was doing the right thing?
Well, no, it wouldn’t. For one thing, it is very hard to set good targets, since managers usually have no information about what the customer really cares about. Target setting embodies incrementalism, so limiting the pace of change. And targets always come with an associated bureaucracy of setting, measurement, reporting and validation – all of which diverts energy from the task the organisation should be focused on.
But most fundamentally, target setting is based on a command and control mindset which assumes that the job of managers is to find a way to “get the workers to do the work”. We have to leave that behind us if we are to transform our services.
The role of leaders
The Civil Service has taught managers that our job is to manage people and manage budgets; and that we should drive performance through the organisation by setting targets, monitoring activity and appraising performance.
In my view, our job in an empowered organisation is to:
- understand our customer value: what do our customers really care about from us?
- design a system to deliver that value
- ensure that we have the capabilities to operate that system
- drive out waste: that is, cut out everything that we don’t have to do which does not contribute to customer value;
- understand the causes of variations in our performance, and drive out those reasons for poor performance that are within our control.
To do this, managers have to be closer to the work. You cannot have bosses in a management factory doing the thinking while the workers do the work. Everyone in the organisation has really to understand the system from end to end, and to focus on how it can be improved to deliver what the customer wants.
People matter. Training matters. Delegation matters. Outputs matter. Financial accountability matters. Nothing I’ve said here should be misunderstood as saying that they don’t. However, we can tick all the boxes in the Investor in People specification and still not deliver a good service.
If we shift out of the command and control mentality, and really trust and empower our staff, we will achieve so much more, and meet the IiP standard on the way.
Working in the public services is an important, honourable role. Targets are making it harder for us to deliver what the public expect.