Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses(Questions 520-539)

THURSDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2003

PROFESSOR MICHAEL BARBER AND MR NICK MACPHERSON

  520. You were reported in the Independent on 9 January as having said that the Government had never set a bad target.
  (Professor Barber) I wonder where the Independent got that from. They certainly did not speak to me about it.

  521. You never said that to Mr Grice who wrote the article. But you would agree that the Government has set bad targets.
  (Professor Barber) What I agreed with at the beginning was that it is perfectly possible to set bad targets and I have given you a couple of examples of targets where the first one was a bad target and the second was quite good but has been improved.

  522. The first one was set by the Government.
  (Mr Macpherson) I think we are in the business of continuous improvement and I think that bad/good is an interesting distinction, but clearly we are seeking to improve targets over time.

  523. Could you say more about this business of some circumstances resulting in perverse outcomes? Can you give us some examples of that?
  (Mr Macpherson) There is an anecdotal story about the local authority which set a target of increasing the amount of recyclable waste and this just resulted in more recyclable waste being produced rather than an increase in waste being recycled. You do come across these from time to time and the key thing is to learn from them and to ensure that you can improve them. I think that has been our experience.

  524. Are there any examples of that in central government where targets have had any perverse outcomes?
  (Mr Macpherson) None come readily to mind.
  (Professor Barber) Can I make a different point but which is directly related to your question? When a target is set there will always be people who predict that they will have perverse outcomes and it is important to monitor those things. This time last year when the Government began its focus on street crime there were a number of people quoted as saying that they would be able to reduce street crime but burglary and car crime would be adversely affected by the focus on street crime. Actually, if you look at what has happened in the street crime areas, burglary and car crime have fallen at least as fast—if not faster—in those areas than in other areas.

  525. There can be unexpected beneficial outcomes as well.
  (Professor Barber) Yes. It is important to check because around any given target there are a set of urban myths which need to be checked up on and exploded where possible.

  526. Others have given us evidence on that as well. In outlining your overall framework and philosophy of targetry you said that there should be rewards for those who succeed, assistance for those who struggle and consequences for under-performers. I wonder how it is you decide with those latter two categories when you give someone a hand-up, when you give them a hand-out and when you give them a slap. How do you actually decide that?
  (Professor Barber) Obviously those decisions involve a great deal of detailed knowledge and need to be taken within the given service. It is not a decision for the Delivery Unit, but if you want an answer in general about how those questions should be approached I can give you one. The critical things to look at are the bench marking data, how well does this given unit compare not just to the service in general but other units like it. If you look at a hospital or a school and it appears to be under-performing, you look at much more than just the average performance because there might be major challenges in that particular locality, so you want to compare it to other units in similar circumstances. You would also want more than just the data. You would want some kind of inspection evidence or on the ground feedback. It is very clear that once you have looked at the data and the inspection evidence you need to go the place and get inside it. The people inside it often know that is a failing, struggling organisation so you need to use a variety of sources of evidence: bench marking data, inspection evidence and then your own direct observation.

  527. One of the feelings that has come out of this inquiry is that sometimes there is an assumption that in the use of targets—which has been brought into government from the private sector where it started off as a method of management—there is a central discontinuity of expectation when you are using targets. In business they set challenging, ambitious targets and they do not expect to meet them. In politics if you set challenging and ambitious targets and they are not met, you then get a hammering because that is what politics is all about. Therefore, the sorts of targets, the high profile public targets that are set in government cannot really be challenging and ambitious because you have to meet them all and if you do not you will get a hammering. Is that a tension that pervades your work?
  (Mr Macpherson) I am ever hopeful that the quality of debate on targets can improve and I think it has. Two or three years ago no-one was talking about targets. Now, through the excellent work of your Committee and others we are actually having a really good open discussion about the sort of impact they can have. I very much agree with a lot of your witnesses from business, that if we had a system where every single target was achieved I would actually think that maybe the Treasury was not doing its job and we would need a bit more stretch in the system. Although I would never try to estimate what is a sensible rate of success across government, I do think we need to take this into account. It is very striking that in relation to a number of the best targets where departments have just fallen short of achieving them there has been huge success. Michael mentioned literacy and numeracy where there has been real success.

  528. True, but ministers lost their jobs over those.
  (Mr Macpherson) I do not think that is quite true. I hope that over time people will realise that these are designed to be achievable but also to provide a bit of stretch and ambition and that it is perfectly respectable to fail to hit a target so long as you are bringing about real change in that service and producing a real change in outcomes.
  (Professor Barber) It was for precisely those reasons that I emphasised at the beginning that targets were part of a system that is driving improvement. In the case of where you just fall short of a target but have driven a great deal of improvement, the target has played its part in that being brought about. That is a very important part of the system. Clearly the language and the debate around targets—as Nick says—need to be refined and developed, and I think that is occurring.

Chairman

  529. I think both Sir Sydney and Kevin have probably tried to say to you in different ways that although you are a kind of technocrat and target-setting is a technocratic exercise, politics keeps intruding. That is the indispensable context in which you are working. Although you chose your form of words very carefully, Michael, describing the waiting list to waiting times shift, that was politics. Part of a mature debate is to recognise that.
  (Professor Barber) Ultimately all the targets in the PSA white paper are decided by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Government, so in that sense they are political. They are based on advice and analysis produced by the Treasury with some support from us. In the end they are a programme of targets established by the Government for the Government.

  530. Yes, and when these red lights start flashing, they are political lights that are flashing.
  (Professor Barber) Yes, but bear in mind the commitment of the Government to improve the public services, so it is not just about politics, the Government knows that the citizens of the country want to see the public services improving.

Mr Lyons

  531. Can I begin with a few organisational questions about the Delivery Unit. When you started off you had a staff of 19 full-time staff. Is that correct?
  (Professor Barber) When we started off on day one there were literally a hand-full of people. I am not sure when we passed 19 but it was probably in the autumn of 2001 but I would not like to say exactly.

  532. By 2002 there were certainly 19 full-time staff within the dept.
  (Professor Barber) That is fine.

  533. How many do you have today?
  (Professor Barber) We have a budget that enables us to have around 40 staff. I think at the last count there were 34 staff working for us. Since 2002 we have had an expanded remit that I described to you previously.

  534. Are there any plans to take on more staff?
  (Professor Barber) On the contrary. My ambition is to do the job with as few staff as I can possibly manage with. We are one of the smallest—if not the smallest—of the central units and I would like it to stay that way.

  535. I am not wishing to make you redundant in any way by this question, but some would ask why do the departments not run their own target setting and checking?
  (Professor Barber) It is a collaborative venture. The Delivery Unit could not do its work unless it had a good working relationship with the departments and one of the things I am most proud of is that as a result of the efforts of my staff we do have excellent working relationships with all the departments we work with. We are working with the departments and tracking data, setting the targets, solving the problems. So they are involved in that; it is a collaboration. What we bring is a professional expertise in delivery and of course the consistency that comes from having the Prime Minister and, through Nick and his people, the Chancellor interested in pursuit of these objectives over a period of time.

  536. Both of you have made mention of tracking progress and so on. We are going to have tracking by the end of March in every department in relation to the PSA targets. Is that on track?
  (Mr Macpherson) It is on track. We already have a system whereby departments report twice a year—once in the spring in the departmental report and again in the autumn—on how they are getting on. What we are moving to—and I think it will be in April rather than March—is a system to make it easier for everybody to find out how the Government is doing across the board by having web-based reporting. You will be able to go into the Treasury web-site and see what is going on in relation to all the PSA's.

  537. So you have missed the target?
  (Mr Macpherson) No.

Chairman

  538. Several departments have not produced their autumn performance reports. Let us put it this way, they certainly did not produce them in the autumn.
  (Mr Macpherson) It is an interesting question when the autumn ends.

  539. Before Christmas, I think. That is a splendid bit of Treasury speak.
  (Mr Macpherson) My understanding is that all but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have produced their autumn reports. I am sure the FCO have very good reasons for not doing so. This was the first time they were required to do it so I would certainly be looking towards a slightly better performance next year.


 
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