Five reasons targets are a terrible way to do government
Jessica Studdert, Deputy Director, NLGN, 30 April, 2020

Under pressure following criticism of his approach to testing for Covid-19, at the start of April Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced a new target: the government would be carrying out 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. Despite much action and the daily media glare, the end of the month has been reached, but it looks like target has not been.

Setting micro-targets to galvanise action and focus attention has been a feature of the Government’s response to coronavirus. Promises have also been made about volunteers, personal protective equipment (PPE) and contact tracers. This approach is not new. Over the years, successive administrations have adopted the tactic of announcing targets as a key lever of governance. But they often fall short. Here are five reasons targets are a terrible way to do government.

1. Targets feed a rhetoric of decisive action, when the reality is often more complicated. Targets are a tactic, which when used in isolation from a wider strategy can be seen as a distraction. A global pandemic is a “wicked problem”, the intractability of which is ill-suited to a leadership style of single-minded, dogged determination. While an eye-catching target give the impression of momentum, a nuanced response is required.

The so-called ‘heroic’ leadership style which targets reflect contrasts with the approach of some leaders internationally, who seek to navigate uncertainty not with grand gestures but with consistent communication and humility. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has demonstrated empathy with an honest approach that manages expectations and avoids misinformation, while New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings have built a sense of transparency, credibility and accountability.

2. Targets are top-down and rigid, so they often leave little space for collaboration and adaptation to local circumstances. The implications of this are visible in reports that one month on from the initial callout for an army of NHS volunteers (the 250,000 target overreached by three times), the vast majority of those who signed up had not yet completed a single action. This is in contrast to significant numbers of community- and council-led volunteer initiatives which were up and running in days following lockdown, responding to local circumstances very quickly.

Beyond the particular urgencies of the pandemic, top-down governance styles are ill-suited to the complexity of modern life. The role of culture is increasingly recognised as important within and between organisations in responding to external circumstances creatively and working with communities collaboratively. Top-down targets tend to drive a set of organisational behaviours which can undermine this. The local area agreements of the 2000s, for example, created a vast architecture of performance indicators and encouraged organisational behaviours amongst councils which ‘fed the system up the governance hierarchy, rather than focus on supporting sustainable community capacity.

3. Targets can create perverse incentives. The government’s need to be seen to be procuring a high volume of PPE demonstrates some of the strange behaviours targets can encourage. The Health Secretary had announced this “topped one billion” items, only for an investigation to reveal that gloves had sometimes been counted individually, contributing to misleading figures.

This demonstrates how sometimes the need to reach a headline target can become detached from the value the target represents on the ground. This is especially problematic when targets are used to drive performance from outsourced providers. For example the previous Work Programme for long term unemployed had in-built incentives for providers to cherry pick those easiest to help and side-line those who required more support.

4. Targets often oversimplify a complex problem: they tend to prioritise quantity of activity over quality. By definition, targets articulate a quantifiable output, sometimes at the expense of potentially more beneficial qualitative outcomes. There is a hint at this in the Health Secretary’s latest target of “an army of 18,000 contact tracers” to be in place in three weeks. This is to be met largely through a recruitment drive for call handlers, with plans for only 3,000 of the total to have public health expertise. So while the numerical and time-limited target may well be met, the opportunity for the ‘army’ to have the specific skills or community knowledge that would make their impact greater (but might be more complicated to assemble), will be lost.

Oversimplified or quantitative targets are especially ill-suited to respond to the complex challenges associated with poverty and deprivation. Evaluations of regeneration funding to deprived areas during the 2000s found sometimes money distributed had been successful according to narrow measures but hadn’t necessarily brought about qualitative improvements in material circumstances.

5. There is a trade-off between the short-term buzz of the media hit announcing the target, and the longer-term decline in trust in politics. Announcing a target is a perfect way to grab headlines but after the immediate hit, very often problems associated with meeting it quickly emerge. Sometimes goalposts are shifted so that at least some version of the target can be met. This appears to have happened with the testing target, which has quietly shifted to creating the capacity to carry out 100,000 tests a day, rather than the actuality. This might be a convenient manoeuvre, but in the long term it feeds into the trend of declining trust in the political process.

Some might argue that targets remain a useful tactic to spearhead action, and even if unmet still result in progress – housebuilding targets are arguably one example. And some targets are more existentially significant – the global carbon emissions reductions targets are pretty fundamental for our very survival in the future (although as activity at the Madrid COP25 Summit showed, the targets have created incentives for countries to haggle over measurements rather than focus on the outcome of saving the planet).

The fundamental problem with targets is that they all too often promise too much, deliver too little, and bypass a lot of value in the process. As we learn lessons from the experience of this pandemic, and consider the nature of recovery and renewal, eliminating targets from the governing toolkit might be one option worth considering.