On target setting

I have had to do things as part of my roles in Local Government that made absolutely no logical sense to me, yet they still have to be done, especially when they are a legal requirement, and so I did them to the best that I could. The performance regime in local government is one such example. This required us to collate hundreds of datasets across all our services, monitor them over time, offer explanations for poor performance (and put improvement plans in place if necessary), track over time and report publicly on an annual basis. On the face of it, I recognised the need for accountability to local people for the standards of service they might expect. But as I dug a little deeper I uncovered what I thought were some fundamental flaws. 

It felt like the purpose was three-fold: primarily to enable central government monitoring and control, masquerading under the narrative of local accountability to citizens, but with the by-product of increased internal awareness of performance. Central government monitoring was backed up with an Audit Commission-led regime that evolved over the time I was servicing it, such as ’Best Value Inspections’ and ‘Comprehensive Performance Assessments’ and the like. 

Local accountability was supposed to be through the publication of performance plans and data for public consumption, without ever being based on anyone actually asking people what they would find helpful or useful. 

Internal performance improvement probably gained traction as a result of knowing that data would be published, however few people might engage with it, and this meant that the newly formed cabinet and scrutiny panels would regularly chew over the data to have early warning of any issues. 

All of which sounds reasonable, up to a point. But I had some problems with this approach which at the time I wasn’t able to clearly articulate as it was more a sense of unease leading to unanswered questions, rather than a clear set of facts. I can summarise them now with the benefit of additional experience. 

I always felt this was a disproportionate effort. Local Government by definition of having locally-elected councillors was already the one part of the public sector that was locally-accountable, through the ballot box. Why, then, layer on additional inspection and monitoring? Perhaps, I suspected, this was centralised control masquerading under the trojan horse of ‘enhancing local accountability’. 

Then there was the challenge of tracking the data and explaining performance, and here I was in familiar territory as I understood that sometimes, despite your best efforts, events happen. Of course poor performance should be seen in a negative light when it was down to incompetence, but generally my experience was that people working in local government did so because they wanted to make a difference for their community, the place they lived.  An accident or roadworks would constrict access to the one refuse disposal site, leading to a spike in missed refuse collections. Not the fault of the service manager or the operatives, just the reality of the unique local context. 

I also didn’t have the language of ‘systems’ in those days, but I understood that you can only attempt to influence those aspects that you had some leverage or degree of control over. Usually these were not represented in the data we were required to track. 

The number of households in temporary accommodation was tracked because housing those at risk of homelessness in B&Bs was expensive to the taxpayer. Yet to beat up the housing manager for a failure to reduce these number was lunacy to me. To take such an approach was to display the belief that the ability to keep these numbers low was completely within the gift of the housing team. Common sense – and a systems view – says otherwise. There are, of course, a myriad of factors that can influence the numbers of people becoming at risk of homelessness and a further set of challenges in helping those people and families gain some sense of stability over their lives. Not least of which was the interaction of complex social factors, such as health, unemployment or domestic abuse, let alone the lack of suitable available housing and the breadth of agencies involved.  

These indicators and the regime that inspected them took no account of such complexity and the systemic nature of most of the challenges that local government worked on. They were simply reinforcing service-silos and not recognising that performance, and outcomes, are the result of the system itself. I couldn’t understand how you could hold an individual or a team to account for something they had little control over or how you could set targets under these (unpredictable) conditions. 

It seemed to me that these were the conditions ripe for gaming – everyone knew it was a bit of game, so let’s play it anyway and keep the inspectors, and internal scrutiny, off our backs. Let’s make the numbers OK enough irrespective of what they actually say, becase we all know we can’t control them anyway. If we can’t control them, let’s make them up. It’s what I would have done, only I was in the internal team trying to pull all these stats together and make sense of them. That in itself felt a largely pointless – and problematic – task. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long after this that I came across the work of John Seddon, and I suddenly found someone articulating my unease; I can still recall my relief from the realisation that I wasn’t going mad after all. There will undoubtedly be more on these issues in future articles. 

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