Dave Richards, Colin Talbot and Ewan Munro explore target setting in Government.
“Everyone has to think of their responsibilities with regard to the dreadful events that happened at the Staffordshire hospital, including the fact that part of the problem was people following a very top-down, target-led agenda which led to patient care being put on the back burner.” David Cameron, quoted in the Daily Mail, 7th May 2013.
During the New Labour era it became fashionable to criticize what became known as ‘targetry’ – setting performance targets for public services and the Government itself. Prominent amongst the critics were the Tory Party and their soon to be Coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.
This was somewhat odd, since it was the Tories who had spent the 1990s introducing targets into almost every area of public service from health and education to quangos and agencies. They even, in the dying days of the Major government, introduced targets for Government departments (for an account of this period see ‘Performance in Government’). But in opposition the Tories began to decry ‘targetry’ and sure enough, in government they immediately set about removing the whole system of Public Service Agreements and Departmental Strategic Objectives established by Labour.
But two years in to the last Coalition all was not what it seemed: in a previous blog – ‘Targets, What Targets’ – one of us analyzed the extent to this had just been a rhetorical commitment, designed to offer a distinct break from the perceived top-down centralism of New Labour.
Public Service Agreements and Departmental Strategic Objectives were abolished, but they were replaced by Departmental Business Plans. These purported to offer a different form of control and accountability, dropping the language of ‘targets’ (but not the reality). Priorities and transparency became the new ‘watch words’ of public services. Whitehall was supposedly tasked with shifting from ‘bureaucratic accountability’ to democratic accountability’ driven by enhanced transparency.
The Government claimed this would: ‘…enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account; to reduce the deficit and deliver better value for money in public spending’. (David Cameron 2010a).
Government and public sector web sites were seen as the means to deliver on this new form of democratic accountability. Yet the evidence presented in ‘Targets, What Targets’ [see Table 1 below] suggested that the use of targets in all but name soon remerged under the Coalition. Moreover, there was considerable variation both in the quality and ‘up-to-dateness’ of the Departmental websites that were meant to act as the catalyst leading to a brave new world of a ‘bottom-up’ accountability.
Three years on we can look back at the whole Coalition period to see what happened.
In practice, as the data below reveals, continuity with past practices of centralized control still remain the main game in town.
What the data shows is that strategic objectives [the current pseudonym for centralized targets] in the form of Departmental Business Plans have certainly not disappeared over the last five years and, crucially in some areas since May 2015 they have risen.
Table 1: Numbers of Departmental Targets/Objectives 2010, 2011-12 and 2013-15
|Department||New Labour Departmental Targets (2010)||Coalition Business Plan Targets #1 (Average 2011-12)[i]||Coalition Business Plan Targets #2 (Average 2013-15)|
|Energy & Climate||7||18||25|
|Work & Pensions||8||37||36|
|C, M & S||4||27||37|
|Average per Dept.||6||27||36|
Table 2: Numbers of Departmental Targets/Objectives
|Department||Total Count (22 Months) [ii]||Annual Average|
|Energy & Climate||45||25|
|Work & Pensions||66||36|
|C, M & S||67||37|
The combination of both departmental business plans operating in conjunction with a new set of objectives specified for each individual Permanent Secretary suggest an informal culture of targets across Whitehall is thriving.
The rhetorical claim that bureaucratic accountability has been abandoned at the behest of democratic accountability would seem somewhat premature. Where difference do lie in the pre- and post-2010 approach is that many of the benchmarks are now diffuse outcomes rather than clear and specific goals. This, alongside the unevenness across Whitehall in both formatting and updating web-sites, makes it difficult to see how they contribute to increasing democratic accountability. From the centre of government downwards a ‘cascading culture of target-setting’ has yet to be abandoned.
We now have a majority Conservative government and the message in their manifesto was that enhanced transparency leading to greater accountability was at the heart of its reform programme for Whitehall. Maybe it was those pesky Lib Dems making them adopt all these targets? Maybe now they are free to govern alone all this will disappear? We somewhat doubt it.