Targets: dammed if you do, dammed if you don't

Part Two of Professor Christina Boswell's (from the University of Edinburgh) thoughts on the use of targets in public policy. A no win situation?

It seemed like a good idea at the time. As a government, you wanted to signal your commitment to certain political goals, through binding yourself to a number of public, transparent targets. At the same time, setting a target seemed like an excellent way to galvinize action: it prompted a flurry of activity as ministers and officials attempted to meet the new performance goal. So setting the target was a way of both reassuring the public of how seriously you take this issue, and ratcheting up the pressure on public servants to deliver.

But what happens further down the line? What if you fail to deliver on the promise? Or what if you deliver, but nobody notices? Here are the three possible scenarios for how targets can pan out over time – with lessons for would-be target-setters.

1.            Mission accomplished. Congratulations, you have met your pledge/promise/target. Perhaps it was always clearly within your grasp, and simply articulated to gain political capital. Or perhaps it was a genuine stretch target, and it’s been an uncertain and bumpy ride in trying to meeting it. But wait: why is no-one interested? You’ve written it up in your departmental report, issued a press release, announced it in parliament… It’s not really news, though, is it? You’ve just done what you said you will do. All has gone according to plan. Where’s the news story in that?

If meeting your target brought about a genuine improvement in public services – reduced hospital waiting times, cut down carbon emissions, improved literacy rates – then perhaps your voters will appreciate that over time. And maybe, just maybe, they will even credit you and your target as the source of this improvement. But then again, maybe they won’t.

2.            Failure to launch. Whoops, it didn’t work out this time. The target was too ambitious. And perhaps your department didn’t have much influence over the outcome anyway. Who actually set the target? Ah, it was a political target. So less to do with what your organization can feasibly achieve, and more to do with political tactics.

Whose wrath do you fear the most? Number 10, the Treasury, the House of Commons Select Committee? These may all give you grief for failing to meet the target. Your department may be cast as inefficient or not fit for purpose, in turn affecting the morale of your officials. What about the public? That rather depends on how your transgression is picked up by your political opponents, and how it is reported in the media. If it’s a fairly humdrum, technical target, then you may be lucky and get away with limited coverage. But if it captures the public or media’s imagination, then you’re in for a bumpy ride. Better have a good explanation up your sleeve.

3.            Oh, that target? Oh, but we didn’t really mean precisely that/we’ve introduced a new way of measuring it/it’s a directional, not an absolute target/it’s no longer relevant/we’re no longer responsible/it was my predecessor’s target/it was my (new) department’s fault/blame it on the global recession [delete as appropriate].

Will you get away with it? Probably not. Certainly, your more specialized or technocratic critics are likely to smell a rat. The Treasury, parliamentary committee, or the National Audit Office will hold you up for gaming. But if it’s a political target, perhaps that’s not so important. What matters more is media and public reaction. And how are they likely to respond? That depends on how important your political opponents and the media think it is to hold you to account. If it’s a target on immigration: unlucky, your opponents and the Daily Mail will milk it. You’re unlikely to get away with such tricks, and your attempt at gaming may just make you look more shifty. If it’s a target on emissions reduction: not so bothered, actually. We all know times are tough, and we have to sacrifice the more idealistic goals.

Do you still want to set high-profile policy targets? Apparently yes. The immediate dividend of sending out a clear signal about commitment to improve performance seems to outweigh the risks further down the road. But be warned: the more your targets are seen to fail, the less political capital you will gain at the point of setting them. So even this short-term dividend may diminish over time. Set targets, by all means. But be careful not to mix up management tools with political point-scoring.

This post originally appeared on Christina's personal blog