Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Sir Michael Bichard, Rector, The London Institute (PST 09)


  Targets are an important way of focusing energy and effort. Without them the commitment to service excellence which the public sector has in abundance could be wasted as individuals reach their own different conclusions about priorities and service levels.

  But targets are so powerful that they can as easily do damage as deliver benefits. There is no formula which guarantees success but experience offers some lessons. Targets:

    —  Need to be set by people who have experience of operational delivery and who have a sensitivity to what is realistic.

    —  Should be small in number if they are genuinely to focus attention on the priorities. As Chief Executive of the Benefits Agency I had 150 targets.

    —  Should be (largely) outcome based and certainly not process dominated.

    —  Should wherever possible be measurable (so preferably quantified).

    —  Should be expressed in terms of client needs.

    —  Should be stretching but achievable. Unrealistic targets do not raise performance—they simply demoralise staff.

    —  Should be regularly reviewed—targets can distort behaviour and can in time be manipulated—need to be frequently refreshed.

    —  Should be regularly policed/audited given the temptation to "fiddle" targets for pay-bonus purposes.

    —  Should cover all levels of delivery—national targets will mean little to local delivery units unless they know what their contribution needs to be.

    —  Should leave scope for creativity—should not be so detailed as to dictate how things should be done.

    —  Should sometimes be about the distance travelled in performance terms rather than about absolute performance levels.

    —  Need to be owned by staff—consultation therefore important.

    —  Need to be influenced by clients and the wider community—consultation again important.

    —  Need to reflect priorities—not fudge difficult decisions about priorities—eg is the priority speed of benefit payments or accuracy.


    —  Performance against targets should be rigorously monitored—which requires reliable management data capable of independent audit.

    —  Targets cannot tell the whole story but they can give some important clues.

    —  Media response to performance make explicit targets increasingly unattractive.


  There are advantages and disadvantages. Tables to encourage bench marking and a sense of competition both of which are important for any business public or private. They also enable client/consumers/citizens to ask questions about relative performance which providers ought to be robust enough to answer. On the other hand it is difficult for them to take account of external factors (eg the particular local social pressures) and they do not effectively measure the distance travelled by a delivery unit. It is too easy for those delivering in areas which do not suffer deprivation to appear regularly at the top of tables without stretching themselves. So tables can be demoralising for some and encourage complacency in others. Tables obviously need to measure the things that matter if they are to be of any use and they can only be as good as the data on which they are based. Having said that they have a part to play in enhancing accountability in a still largely monopolistic situation although the more they can measure, in education especially, value added the better they will be.

November 2002

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