Targets and Performance in UK Public Services | Mike Barton


Targets used to be the sole preserve of people who sold products to customers. They are now everywhere in the public services arena with their accompanying partner “Performance.”

Customers used to be shoppers, now they are Patients, Pupils, Victims of Crime and indeed the general public. Public services are now classed as a business and are the poorer for the re-classification. But that itself demeans the professions and anyone who serves the greater public good. You are a ‘customer”; you expect a “service.”

A patient expects treatment, a pupil expects an education, a victim of crime expects support and justice, someone dropping rubbish at the local refuse tip expects it to be taken away, etcetera. That’s all, nothing more.

Give someone a target and they’ll find a way to hit it.

Targets (and the necessity to hit them) increase stress, dilute a worker’s effectiveness and, worse, promote a degree of dishonesty. Not going to hit your target this month? Will your manager call you in for a Performance review as a result? You’re under pressure, what are you going to do? Look for a way to hit the target!

But that action could well be detrimental to say a victim of crime, through focusing on something else that has a new trumpeted political agenda. Or a pupil could be manipulated into giving the right answer for levelling. Or maybe you’re Ambulance crew on a Cat C thirty minutes and you’re only a few minutes away, it’s been a rough shift, you could take the long way and buy some time. Not got enough arrests for Stop and Search? Then you’ll need to go and find someone to search. Doesn’t make sense. Life does not happen for the convenience of targets. A classic juxtaposition.

A Rubicon of no small magnitude has been well and truly crossed.

Worse still, the target instigators and beneficiaries have swallowed the target and performance mentality as not only relevant, but gospel. As a result, trust and job satisfaction have been sucked out of the workplace. New managers have grown up with the target mentality and know no different. Never mind the actual motivation in the first place to do the job!

If the only thing that matters is the target, the focus is moved away from the recipient and onto something that holds the key to job retention: hit the target, performance is deemed acceptable, and one’s job is safe.

But over time, targets encourage a personal abdication of responsibility as the target assumes that role. Also they allow no room for the unexpected and a necessary human action that may cause a “miss” of the target.

Photo by zen ramlan on Flickr.

First, health. That there is a crisis in our public services is not news. However, there is a deeper underlying issue that should concern the public. Not the popular stick beating mantra of “not meeting targets” much trumpeted media hyped headline. But an unseen invidious problem that affect the staff working at the coalface.

This issue is not on any political or senior management agenda. Nor will it ever be the case.  It concerns those absent from the public gaze, exodus of experienced staff, their replacements and the continuing and inevitably low morale of those left working at the sharp end. Or in new management speak “point of delivery to the customer.”

It is a mute scandal that the UK has been losing its best staff in Education and Health Care, overwhelmed with management demands and the sharp end of societal change.

As a result there is a drain of experienced staff whose knowledge and example setting historically passed on from previous generations is being lost to would-be practitioners. At severe cost to the public.

But the Politicians and their henchmen’s myopic self-serving embrace of the  ‘Targets and Performance’ culture masks the underlying issue.

A kind of Rome burning analogy could be appropriate. As they play the tune of “Targets and Performance uber alles” the stress heaped on those who have to carry out the delivery debases the public services workplace. T’s and P’s are the elephant in the room.

Demand on the NHS is at well-documented crisis levels. Hospitals overflowing into the corridors, Ambulance Services overburdened with call volumes.

The problems are due to an increase in population, behavioural both in self care and the legion of alcohol and drug related admissions, advances in medical science offering more treatments and we are all living longer.

Against this numerically challenging background you have not enough resource provided and then set people targets?

As in Education, there is a drain of experienced staff exiting the NHS. 268 Paramedics left London Ambulance in 2014. Even conservatively, if each Paramedic served for just 10 years (granted some would have been retirees)

Can the Capital with its near 9 million residents afford to lose nearly three thousand years of experience? Given that it is entirely possible several months without coming across a Cardiac Arrest it requires significant time served to build up some expertise. The point is obvious; create an environment that encourages staff to stay and build experience.

But the Targets and Performance culture has no interest in “years served” experience. Surely the question to the Politicos is; would it not be perhaps be more prudent to curb the losses and retain that knowledge? Common sense, but not politically expedient.

As an aside, a recent Secretary of State for Health referred to these professionals as “Ambulance Drivers” it reveals not only ignorance but also contempt. Presumably the target setting colleagues hold a similar view. The Health service is therefore not safe in the hands of politicians.

If the aforementioned Honourable Gentleman “third manned” on an Ambulance for a few shifts (it would mean missing some beauty sleep) he would realise just how jaw-droppingly offensive his “driver “categorisation actually is to a Paramedic. Add to that sorry situation the fact that 40 % of Paramedics experience physical and verbal assault in a year. Do their masters care more about that or worrying that they are missing their targets? The Bullseye wins. The eight-minute “target” to reach a patient with a life threatening condition has no robust empirical evidence to back it up. It is an arbitrary figure. Surely it is better to get there as safely as you can speed has caused deaths, the irony!

But if you can introduce a raft of meaningless dumbed-down targets that can be” hit”, you convince the public its all okay.

Then of course, there is the issue of education.

‘It is a national scandal that around two-fifths of teachers have left the profession within 5 years. Serious questions need to be asked about the current teacher training system.’

-Sir Michael Wilshaw. Head of Ofsted. January 2014.

The Head of Ofsted is pointing the finger in the wrong direction. It is the regime that staff has to operate within that is the problem.

Photo by British Embassy Mexico City on Flickr.

The society we live in has changed significantly in both mind-set and number, in one generation. Services are crumbling under the strain of both. The now tragically familiar term socially Broken Britain has played its part.

The reality of the reasons behind our brokenness plays out in our schools. It is now accepted it is the Teachers’ fault that a child did not achieve. The onus to provide a good example, stable environment for children (for an ever increasing section of the population) has seemingly disappeared.

The NSPCC figures or children at risk between 2014 -16 show an increase of 15 %. That’s the ones that are known about. Ask any Primary school teacher about the home lives of some of their children and you will hear some heart-rending cases that not only affect the child, but the overall class in some way. Stress on the Teacher having to deal with the parents of an increasing number of mis-treated children, the behaviour of the unfortunate kids themselves and the ever increasing Government meddling and demands, makes it a toxic mix in which the Teacher has to struggle to educate.

Staff who were hitherto doing a good and honest day’s work (willingly going the extra mile without a second thought) had no choice but to accept this unwelcome arrival of micro-management and big brother monitoring.

Classroom Teachers are put under pressure by their Head Teachers to “get a pupil to a level” which on the face of it doesn’t sound like so bad a thing. But the motivation is suspect; it is to make the school look good.

This is a given common practice now. To get the ‘right’ data result from the test, there are ways of manipulating a “what is seven take away four” question to a pupil that makes it a no brainer for the answer.

The problem is that the child can be deemed to have given the right answer but does not actually understand the workings out. But the box is ticked and the child is graded to be at the level the Head wanted to show the school in the best light. Dare it be said that in some cases that career self interest be involved?

The other associated problem with the sleight of hand is that the next school the child moves on to sees what “level’ they have been awarded and expect that arithmetic to be of that standard, but when the child didn’t understand the logic in the first place they are left floundering at the next school. Expectations from that school are not realised.

Data is the name of the game, not education, tick the box and move on. Doesn’t necessarily matter if the pupil hasn’t understood as long as the school “looks” good.

Targets increase stress and which dilutes a worker’s effectiveness. As a result, trust and job satisfaction have been sucked out of the workplace. If the only thing that matters is the target, the focus is moved away from the recipient and onto something that holds the key to job retention, hit the target and performance is deemed acceptable and one’s job is safe.

But over time targets encourage a personal abdication of responsibility as the target assumes that role. Also they allow no room for the unexpected. Once the target is achieved it can promote feelings of taking the foot off the pedal.

Trust between employer and employees has evaporated. There is an element of the boiling frog here, except the water temperature was instantly recognised as noticeably warm and given us destructive micro management to the nth degree ably aided and abetted by all manner of software.

When one considers the human brain and its capability versus the machine it beggars belief that the target culture every took hold. Software cannot read emotions, recognise life circumstance and its affect on an individual. It cannot respond in a constructive and human way to resolve anything that affects a person.

The human capability has been side-lined, not thought to be of value, the worker becomes a shell, an automaton used to hit targets. Because that is all data collection devices (and their users) do; record data. The human element has been removed.

We need to encourage responsibility, not take it away. Freedom in the form of allowing people to use and rely on their intelligence and not just serve a man made target.

Bring back the humanity, or we just become bar-codes.


Photo by Jon Minton on Flickr.

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