Monday, June 25, 2007

Target Triage

Marked for the reading morgue
Nick Ross, the ex-presenter of of BBC Crimewatch, has laid into police targets. He's seen a lot of the police during his 23 years on the programme and blames government targets for distorting police priorities and making them less effective at fighting crime:

“They are really not into crime prevention, which is what they should be about. Their job these days is much more about detection rates and meeting those targets.”

True, he also points to a lot of other problems with our police, such as "a ‘tick-box mentality’ where filling out forms and questionnaires has taken over so much time", and restrictive practices (like Community Support Officers always patrolling in pairs). But his comments on targets are... er, right on target.

Coincidentally (?) last week I watched Rod Morgan on C4's "the Insider" arguing that the Government’s policy of targets and incentives is resulting in the police arresting minor delinquents repeatedly. He reckons it's counter-productive. It stops the police focusing on serious crime and is turning a generation into criminals.

Normally of course, I discount anything bearded leftie Morgan says, but this made me sit up. Because according to him, many forces financially incentivise officers to achieve a certain arrest rate so they can hit detection targets. And it seems nicking a teenage tearaway on an estate counts just as much as incacerating Al Capone.

The result is that resources are switched from tackling more difficult crimes (such as credit card fraud, now virtually abandoned by the police), making real crime even worse.

This is a major problem with targets. At best, they are a very blunt instrument for tackling what are generally very complex issues. At worst- and boy, have we had the worst- they are simply political constructs driven by the commissars' need to "prove" what a good job they're doing. Either way, they often end up diverting resources from the things we taxpaying customers really care about.

Consider some other examples.

In education, we've had rafts of targets. And quite naturally, schools manage to the targets rather than managing to the customers. And even setting aside the dumbing down of exam standards, what that means in practice is that they focus their efforts and resources on the pupils who are marginal to hitting the targets. Those outside the critical margin don't have a shout.

According to the Rowntree Trust's report on low-achievers last week (here and see this blog):

"There is much research evidence for ‘triage’ within schools (concentrating resources on the students who can be helped to turn Ds into Cs, at the expense of the low performers and the best: West and Pennell, 2000; Golden et al., 2002; Burgess et al., 2005b; Wilson et al., 2006)."

And they point out exactly the same thing happened with the National Literacy Strategy: the kids that could be taught to jump through the specific target hoop got all the effort, while the 20% of kids who have real problems reading were left behind. The result is that while the first few years of the NLS showed rapid progress on the target as schools learned how to "teach to the test", the whole thing has now stalled. The really low achievers are not only still stuck, they're almost certainly in a worse position because teaching resources have been focused on the triaged "minor" and "immediate" cases.

In health, yet more targets, and doubtless the same process of intensive help for those who can be tipped over the target level. Indeed, on the famous waiting lists, the progress in cutting maximum waiting times has often been at the cost of increasing average waiting times. Plus of course, all the other gaming, like waiting lists to get on waiting lists, 48 hour GP appointments etc etc.

Or take child poverty, where vast amounts of money have been spent on a programme to "end child poverty". But the target is the government's arbitrary measure of 60% of median incomes, taking no account of the fact that these days, money is rarely the real problem with poor families.

Even programmes which are more than just dolloping out cash- such as the notorious £5bn Sure Start programme- have triaged those just below the target levels rather than the really hard cases further down (eg see this blog). As a result, resources have been diverted from the really tough cases, who have been left in a worse condition. The National Evaluation of Sure Start concluded:

"The programme is setting back the behaviour and development of young children in the most alienated households...Children of teenage mothers and unemployed or lone parents did worse in Sure Start areas than those in similarly deprived communities elsewhere."

Isn't that brilliant?

So what do we conclude? Targets clearly have a place in many management situations. But using them to implement a gigantic top-down state planning system is a disaster. It was a disaster in the Soviet Union, and it remains a disaster in 21st Century public services.

We've said it before- many many times- but we have to say it again. The only sustainable path to improvement is to put control in the hands of customers. And where that can't be done (as perhaps with those Sure Start losers), control should rest with local taxpayers. Not with the commissars.

1 comment:

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