Select Committee on Public Administration Fifth Report

Chapter 2: Problems of the measurement culture, and attempts to solve them

28. We believe that the Government has laudable aspirations for its public service targets and performance tables. Yet, despite this, the Government's policy was unpopular with many of our witnesses. Even where they agreed in principle with targets (which almost all said they did), they expressed serious reservations about their operation in practice. Allegations of cheating, perverse consequences and distortions in pursuit of targets, along with unfair pressure on professionals, continue to appear. League tables are often seen as untrustworthy and misleading.

29. This Chapter looks at some of the evidence for this unpopularity, and tries to analyse the reasons. Below, we take each of the Government's aspirations in turn, assessing to what extent they have failed to meet them.

Five failings

Lack of clarity about what the Government is trying to achieve; failure to produce equity

30. Much of our evidence suggested that the measurement culture had failed to give a clear enough statement of the Government's aims and priorities. While there was much exhortation and a wide range of targets, there was not a sufficiently coherent lead.

31. The recent Cabinet Office review of Executive Agencies observed that "the link between Public Service Agreement targets and agency key targets is… often unclear"[21] and "it is often difficult for agencies to see any real link between the services they deliver and the needs of the Department".[22]

32. The idea of relying on national targets to promote greater equity also raises a number of difficult issues. A national target can be met in more than one way, and some of them promote greater equity while others do not. For example, a 10% improvement in services can be achieved if all providers improve equally. Alternatively it can also be achieved if some units do disproportionately well while others fail. If top performers improve most, this will widen the gap between citizens in different parts of the country, while if poor performing agencies do best, this will not only raise the average but also reduce inequalities. It is important therefore to be clear about objectives.

Failure to provide a clear sense of direction and ambition and to help plan resources. Failure to communicate a clear message to staff

33. We doubt that the current target regime has succeeded in providing a clear sense of direction and ambition for our public services. Targets can never be substitutes for a proper and clearly expressed strategy and set of priorities, and we found that witnesses identified a significant risk that the target setting process had subverted this relationship, with targets becoming almost an end in themselves rather than providing an accurate measure of progress towards the organisation's goals and objectives. Targets can be good servants, but they are poor masters.

34. In his evidence to us Sir Michael Bichard recorded his concern that targets were "almost being presented as a substitute for business planning, that really all you needed was a small set of targets, they were in the PSA and you got your comprehensive spending money and then they were reviewed".[23] For him the key point was that targets should be "dropping out of the business plan" and not the other way round. Targets are no substitute for effective management. Peter Neyroud expressed a similar concern about the need to link target setting to strategic direction. He told us that "The linking of targets to a clear strategic direction and to resource allocation will ensure that a more limited number of well designed targets would be likely to have a far greater impact than a plethora of ill considered targets".[24]

35. Where centrally-imposed targets differ widely from what local people judge to be sensible aspirations, tensions can arise, making it difficult to keep a sense of 'direction and ambition'. Jonathan Harris, formerly Director of Education for Cornwall, told us during our visit to Bristol of his disagreement with the DfES over targets for Key Stage 2. He had an admirably clear idea of what targets can do: "The purpose… of setting targets is to motivate the staff to perform better".[25] He suggested, like so many of our witnesses, that targets should be produced at least partly on the basis of local knowledge, "If you think, 'I can just about make it', you have a stretching target and I think services improve". Instead of this, Cornwall was given what teachers, administrators and local politicians all felt was an unrealistic target, based upon national figures. Eventually, after tough negotiations, the two sides simply agreed to disagree. The outcome appeared to be counter-productive. As Mr Harris put it, "Something imposed from above nationally which has little relevance to a teacher in a school in the middle of Bodmin Moor is not necessarily stretching her and it may not actually achieve improvement".[26]

36. Many top-down targets were condemned by our witnesses. The Rt Hon Estelle Morris MP, former Secretary of State for Education, conceded to us that "The biggest problem at the moment is that the profession feels no ownership of the targets, none whatsoever".[27] She added that "The key thing is the national target was set first, that was what caused the problem… but if the target was set at school level and then you built up you would not have the problem in making the jigsaw pieces fit the jigsaw".[28] Sir Michael Bichard said it was "absolutely hopeless to set a national target and then just tell local delivery units to go away and achieve those because they have got no idea what that national target means in terms of their performance, what they need to do to improve so that the national target is achieved'.[29] As Lord Browne observed "You cannot impose targets by fiat".[30] We strongly agree, and we also feel that, at the front line in the public services, there is still a perception that this is what is happening.

37. The contrast with the commercial world is clear. The Audit Commission told us that "the private sector is comfortable with targets" because, while they are determined from the top, they are "built on measures which are valid from the 'bottom-up', for example sales, and generally accepted as valid".[31] The same could not be said for much of the public sector in the UK.

38. The underlying problem seems to be that central departments often do not understand what life is like for those who deliver services. This was the view of James Strachan, Chairman of the Audit Commission, who identified one way in which physical and organisational geography can defeat attempts to learn from experience:

"What concerns me is that there are two very severe skills shortages, one at the centre and one locally. At the centre there is still a real paucity at the senior level of people who are involved in the setting of targets, a lack of real world delivery experience and this is shown time and time again. And, secondly, related to that, is the fact that if you have a very controlling centre you have a tendency not only to set the 'what', but also to get far too much involved in the 'how'. The second point is at a local level. At the local level often the experience of real world delivery is there, but what is not there is a real understanding of both the strengths but also the limitations of these tools and, of course, we see far too often that the mechanism which is purely a means, becomes an end in itself. It is not a learning tool, it is the actual object of all activity. That is very dangerous".[32]

39. Much of our evidence bears out Mr Strachan's contention. Jan Filochowski, Chief Executive of Bath Royal United Hospital, criticised ministers for imagining that it was easy to replicate best practice all over the country:

"I think maybe ministers sometimes feel that because one place does it right everyone can do it right, and it really is not as simple as that… When we started to be successful and people said, 'Why don't you give a seminar and tell people how to do it'? I said, 'No, we have got to build up a whole battery of skills, it is a year long task, we have got to think about how you change the approach, it is a major, major task'. That is why it is not so transferable".[33]

40. Without allowing for a professional veto on change or accountability, there is a need to take proper account of the existence and expertise of professional groups. We had a great deal of evidence from medical colleges, headteachers' associations and others concerned with professional standards, much of it expressing concern that targets failed to take account of their special expertise and judgement. Many (especially in the health service) felt undermined by targets, with the late 1990s obsession with cutting waiting lists frequently cited as the most damaging example.[34]

41. The Governor of Durham Prison and President of the Governors' Association, Mike Newell, made clear the importance of getting the professionals involved when targets are set:

"The key is the relationship between those professional managers and the target-setting process… about making sure that the agenda of what needs to happen for performance improvement in an organisation is driven by professional involvement. If you have it at ministerial and senior civil service and our level end and you do not have a full connection with the professionals then you may end up measuring the wrong things and you may end up with very poor performing prisons, despite all the targets".[35]

42. Whilst the Treasury claims that it takes into account many views about measuring targets, all five groups it mentioned to us are at the top layer of government.[36] Even senior representative organisations, like the Local Government Association, can sometimes feel neglected by government when it comes to setting targets:

"We have not really had sufficient dialogue about the targets as such. We certainly did not the first time around. It has improved a bit in the last spending review".[37]

43. Evidence about service delivery must be collected in the first instance by the people doing the work. Under the Next Steps initiative so many agencies have become distanced from central government that Whitehall's capacity to understand and control evidence of programme performance has weakened, ironically just as its anxiety to deliver has increased.

44. Many of our witnesses said that there were too many targets from Whitehall. Mr John Grogono Thomas, a teacher at Novers Lane Primary School in Bristol, which we visited, said that "there have become too many targets. They become meaningless since managing them creates so much bureaucracy that they become distracting and cannot be effectively delivered. Also pupils cannot focus on them all".[38]

45. Another problem is the tendency for departments sometimes to appear to pluck targets out of the air in support of the latest initiative. Such targets will command neither respect nor credibility. A number of our witnesses cited the aim to reduce school truancies by 10% by 2004 compared to 2002 as a prime example of a target where the objective was seen as relevant and highly desirable but where the target figure was seen as quite arbitrary.

46. Sir Jeremy Beecham of the Local Government Association thought the truancy target was "not meaningless in the sense that it is a figure which might be justified in practice but one does not know how it has been derived".[39] Similarly David Hart, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), could find no objective basis for a figure of 10%: "I think the reduction in truancy to 10% is not a bad target but again it is a target plucked out of the air. Why 10%? Why not 15% or 20% or 5%? …It is the percentage figures; it is the lack of proper consultation and discussion".[40] And in the end Estelle Morris found, "…it difficult to use the target to develop the dialogue that should have been possible".[41] We share these concerns. It is clearly not sensible to have targets set in such an arbitrary way.

Failure to focus on delivering results

47. Do targets actually deliver results? We found that the Government was achieving the majority of the PSA targets it had set itself, and that it had fulfilled its requirements to report performance against them (see below, paras 68-73) .Yet we discovered that targets and results were different things. The Government hopes that target setting will encourage service providers to apply creativity in making their activities contribute effectively to delivery. But in some cases creativity is being directed more to ensuring that the figures are right than to improving services. This is where measurement ceases to be a means to an end and becomes an end in itself.

48. The danger with a measurement culture is that excessive attention is given to what can be easily measured, at the expense of what is difficult or impossible to measure quantitatively even though this may be fundamental to the service provided (for example, patient care, community policing, or the time devoted by a teacher to a child's needs). There is the further danger that the demands of measurement may be so consuming of time and effort that they detract from the pursuit of a service's underlying purpose.

49. The measurement culture is also in danger of threatening standards. We heard of a number of cases where delivering on targets seemed to have become more important than delivering on services. Alarmingly, we received evidence that targets for ambulance response were jeopardising the effective delivery of services, and clinical outcomes. The national targets for ambulances require them to respond to life threatening emergencies within a certain number of minutes. We took impressive evidence from the Chief Executive of the Staffordshire Ambulance Service, Roger Thayne, who had a serious divergence of view with the Department of Health about the most appropriate measure of ambulance effectiveness. He argued strongly that the national response time target was inadequate:

"The NHS Ambulance Service generally accepts that:

a) There is no uniform standard of measurement of ambulance response times within Ambulance Services and that the clock starts at different times which may vary by as much as 3 minutes.

b)The classification of what is a life threatening emergency differs between Ambulance Services and ranges from less than 10% of all emergency calls to above 50%".[42]

50. Mr Thayne's view was that the differences between the starting points, and the varying definitions of a 'life threatening emergency', cast doubt on the usefulness of the target. He then went on to suggest that one management response to the target could undermine professionalism:

"The measurement of response allows the clock to stop when either an ambulance or qualified 'responder' arrives on scene. All ambulance services have therefore developed single paramedic fast response capabilities and many have also introduced lay first responders to help achieve response times. It is questionable whether the lay responders are either trained or equipped to meet the range of emergency conditions to which they are responded".[43]

51. It is clear that 'lay responders' are seen by some as the product more of pressure to meet targets than of real professional judgement. Mr Thayne's service meets the national target, but also has its own, which is based on a variety of indicators, including cardiac arrest survival and general morbidity statistics. He told us that the outcomes were excellent, and that he felt that national targets were not appropriate on their own.

Perverse consequences

52. In another part of the healthcare system, we had evidence of problems with the consequences of targets for ophthalmology in Bristol. Dr Richard Harrad, Clinical Director of the Bristol Eye Hospital, told us:

"The waiting time targets for new outpatient appointments at the Bristol Eye Hospital have been achieved at the expense of cancellation and delay of follow-up appointments. At present we cancel over 1,000 appointments per month. Some patients have waited 20 months longer than the planned date for their appointment. We have kept clinical incident forms for all patients, mostly those with glaucoma or diabetes, who have lost vision as a result of delayed follow-up; there have been 25 in the past 2 years. This figure undoubtedly underestimates the true incidence and of course there is the large backlog of patients still to be seen. One particularly sad case was that of an elderly lady who was completely deaf and relied upon signing and lip-reading for communication. She lives with her disabled husband who like her is completely deaf. Her follow-up appointment for glaucoma was delayed several times and during this time her glaucoma deteriorated and she became totally blind".[44]

53. This is just one example of a wider problem. Dr Ian Bogle of the BMA had similar evidence:

"In my own area where I have worked for many years the ophthalmic unit cancelled 19,500 follow-up appointments in a six-month period so that new patients could be seen to reach the target for new patients being seen".[45]

When targets put target setting before clinical need, they are clearly inverting priorities rather than advancing them.

Problems with cross-cutting targets

54. The Government stresses the benefits of targets as ways of making different services pull together to deliver results for the public. However, we found that in some cases the attempt to use cross-boundary and trans-departmental targets as a means of fostering a more 'joined-up' approach to service delivery was failing. This was largely because either targets for individual departments needed to be balanced with priorities in other departments or, more simply, that they were incompatible. Mr Narey (prisons) and Mr Neyroud (police) agreed with the Chairman's observation that, the more the police met their target of closing the justice gap—putting people in prison—the more difficult it became for the prison service to meet its own targets on overcrowding and re-offending.[46]

55. It becomes difficult to prioritise in cases where targets are shared by more than one department or agency, or where the department is reliant on others to contribute toward meeting the targets. In her evidence to us Dr Morgan of the NHS Confederation saw a problem "at the top, at government level" firstly in getting agreement on what those joint targets should be, and then in making sure that every department regarded these as a top priority.[47]


56. The cases mentioned above demonstrate a failure by Government departments to understand the way things work on the ground, and to set targets competently. Beyond that, we also heard accusations of a more direct threat to the public service ethos: the deliberate falsification of information and failure to follow proper procedures, amounting at times to cheating.

57. The recent case of a primary head teacher who, anxious to avoid a low league table placing, helped his pupils to cheat on Sats tests may be rare.[48] Both the NUT and the National Association of Head Teachers believed this to be so. However David Hart of the NAHT thought that such cases might be on the increase.[49]

58. In the NHS, some accident and emergency units appear to be prone to creative accounting. In their evidence to us the BMA, the RCN and the Patients Association all cited examples where targets for A and E maximum waiting times were being circumvented by imaginative fixes where trolleys either had their wheels removed or were re-designated as 'beds on wheels' and corridors and treatment rooms are re-designated as 'pre-admission units'.[50]

59. The Consumers' Association told us of a range of near-corrupt practices in ambulance services:

"Some ambulance trusts were massaging their response times in order to meet Government response-time targets. For example, in some cases ambulance trusts reported reaching patients in the near impossible time of less than one minute (and in one case less than zero seconds). Paramedics also told us that calls may be re-classified once the ambulance has arrived on the scene, so a late Category A call may be reclassified as Category B in order to meet that particular performance target. More worryingly, Health Which? found direct evidence of pressure being exerted on paramedics to achieve the response time targets by altering records".[51]

60. Occasionally, deliberate manipulation of figures has come to light in other parts of the NHS. In 2001, the NAO reported on the inappropriate adjustment of waiting lists by nine NHS Trusts.[52] The adjustments reduced the apparent numbers of patients on waiting lists—then a key target for the Department of Health—affecting thousands of patients' records, and resulted in delayed treatment for some.

Failures in reporting and monitoring

61. In its evidence to us the NAO tactfully described the Government's reporting against targets as still "developing", noting the absence of either centrally accepted standards for reporting performance or of any general requirement for audit or validation of results reported. Many of the NAO's value for money reports have examined departments' performance measurement systems or validated performance data. The NAO reported that in over 80% of such 'first time' validations, they found that the organisation had materially misstated their achievements or had failed to disclose potentially material weaknesses with their data. In over 70% of validations, there were material inaccuracies in performance data used to track progress against one or more key targets. Taking a different frame of analysis, there were problems with the reporting of around 20% of targets examined.[53]

62. According to the NAO the reason for these problems was a lack of attention to, or expertise in, performance measurement and reporting techniques. But the absence of any routine external validation of the measures meant that there was no external discipline on trust reporting, and no routine independent review of the quality of information. Our research into departments' performance showed up significant variations in how progress against targets was reported. Typically, departments have been much more forthcoming about targets they have met rather than those in which there has been 'slippage' in progress. There is little central guidance on how such reporting should be carried out. This situation jeopardises the credibility of the whole policy of government by measurement.

63. Difficulties in monitoring and reporting have also sometimes been the result of poorly thought-out targets. The Statistics Commission complained to us that in some policy areas:

"Targets have been set without consideration of the practicalities of monitoring and what data already exist. Sometimes this simply results in the need to collect additional data, potentially diverting resources from other priorities, but setting targets without baseline information runs the risk that targets are set at levels which are unrealistic (or undemanding) or which may be difficult to monitor effectively".[54]

64. The Commission pointed us to some difficulties in monitoring particular government services and programmes, including the NHS Cancer Plan and the campaign against child poverty. On the latter, they explained that it could take a very long time to arrive at the accurate figures for broad 'outcome' measures (often much longer than it takes to arrive at figures about inputs or outputs).[55] The Commission reiterated this general point in its 2003 annual report, remarking that there were several areas in which national statistics were inadequate for monitoring of targets. It concluded: "In the absence of good baseline information, the inevitable arguments about whether such targets have actually been met are liable to undermine public confidence in government".[56]

65. A particular issue in terms of performance reporting is that of shared and cross-cutting targets. There are many instances of PSA targets that are the shared responsibility of more than one department. Most of these shared targets are contained in an individual department's PSA, where the same target is replicated for each department sharing the target. Other targets of this sort can be found in cross-cutting public service agreements, where responsibility for the whole PSA is shared between two or more departments, such as the PSAs on the Sure Start programme and on the criminal justice system. Normally departments co-ordinate their reporting on shared targets, but there has been the occasional example where this has not occurred.[57] It has sometimes been difficult to follow progress against cross-cutting PSA targets, where the relevant departments all share responsibility for the targets, but where in practice accountability for them might slip between the interdepartmental cracks (for example in the 1998 PSA targets on action against illegal drugs).

66. Beyond individual departmental failings, there is the larger question of whether performance against targets needs to be independently validated. At the moment, all such assessments are based on departments' own judgements of how well they have performed against their targets. We doubt whether it is enough for assessment by government departments (however good the guidelines from the centre) to be used as the single yardstick. The Sharman report on audit and accountability in the public sector recommended independent validation by the NAO.[58] From April 2003, the NAO has started external validation of the data systems feeding into performance reporting, as recommended by Sharman. However, this falls well short of independent external validation of the actual judgements about whether targets have been met or not. More needs to be done to ensure the credibility of the figures.

67. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Select Committee raised this issue in its report on the ODPM's 2002 departmental annual report, in which it expressed scepticism about the veracity of the department's reporting on targets. The Committee suggested that the department had an interest in presenting its performance in the most favourable light, which had the effect of inhibiting open and comprehensible reporting. The Committee concluded:

"We heard that the Department monitors its own progress against its targets. With PSA targets ODPM, like all government departments, both sets and marks its exam paper. This undermines the credibility of the Annual Report. The Annual Report should make clear whether reported progress against each target has been externally validated in any way. The National Audit Office will audit the systems used to validate targets from 2003-06; but validating systems is a long way from validating the targets themselves. Reported performance can only be credible if targets are externally monitored, by bodies reporting to Parliament and not other government departments. We recommend that the National Audit Office should undertake such monitoring".[59]

68. The continuing arguments about whether targets have been met illustrate how hard it is to use performance information without party political considerations getting in the way. It has become almost impossible to have sensible discussion about targets because of the way in which the whole issue has become a political (and media) football. Conflicting claims have emerged from the Government and from the Conservatives about the actual number of these targets that have been met. The set of PSA targets published as part of the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review is the first round of targets to complete its life span, covering the period from 1999 to 2002. As such, it is the only set of PSA targets for which definitive judgements can be made about whether the targets have been met or not. In an attempt to clarify the situation, we tracked progress against every performance target contained in the 1998 PSAs. The results of this exercise appear below in summary form, with fuller detail contained in the annex.

69. Our research found that 221 of the 366 performance targets set out in the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review were judged as met, representing 60.4% of the total. In contrast, a comparatively small number of targets were not met: 36, or 9.8%. Relatively high percentages were recorded for the number of targets where no judgement could be made of whether they had been met or not, since there was either a lack of data on their achievement (14.2%) or there was simply no final reporting at all on their achievement (10.4%). However, these totals are skewed somewhat by the inclusion of results for the smaller departments (these smaller departments were set service delivery agreements (SDAs) rather than PSAs in subsequent Spending Reviews, to reflect better the contribution their targets made to the Government's overall goals and priorities).

70. An assessment can also be made of how well the main departments performed against their targets. By taking out the results for the smaller departments and the cross-cutting PSAs, we come up with a total of 249 targets for the main departments. Of these targets, 67.1% were met while 10.0% were not met. The results can be refined further by looking only at those targets where a definite outcome was recorded (i.e. the targets were met, not met or partially met). This leaves a total of 211 targets, of which the majority (79.1%) were recorded as met, with a further 9.0% partially met and 11.8% reported as not being met. This means that the main departments, as a group, met or partially met 88.1% of the targets for which they reported a definite outcome.

71. The findings from our research bear out both the Government's and the Conservatives' figures. The reason for this is that, while there appears to be broad agreement on the raw figures of numbers of targets met, the interpretation and presentation of them are quite different. The Government maintains that 87% of the 1998 targets have been met.[60] However, those citing this statistic sometimes omit to mention that: (a) it only counts the main departments' targets, not all of the targets outlined in 1998; (b) it includes targets partially met as well as those fully met; (c) it only includes targets with deadlines within the reporting period (1999-2002); and (d) only targets where performance information is available are included. Hence, the 86% figure for targets met is quite heavily qualified, something that is not always made clear.

72. Similarly, the Conservatives' claim that 38% of the 1998 targets had not been assessed as met needs to be put in its appropriate context. Our understanding is that included in this figure are targets which really belong in a separate category, such as those that have been judged 'partly met', 'almost met', 'ongoing' and those where there is 'insufficient information to reach a conclusion'. The Conservatives are careful to phrase the 38% statistic as targets that are 'not assessed as met', rather than 'assessed as not met'. However, this subtle distinction is likely to be missed by most observers—as is reflected in the news reports based on these figures that said 38% of targets 'have not been met'[61] or were 'missed'.[62] Hence, the suggestion that the Government has failed to meet 38% of its targets is overinflated, since this figure includes targets which cannot properly be considered 'not met'. All this suggests to us that there is a strong case for independent valuation of the figures.

73. Independent verification by a credible external source would go some way towards dispelling the current confusion about the precise number of targets that have been achieved. Beyond this, however, the onus is on those presenting information about target achievement to make clear what their figures actually refer to, with appropriate qualifications upfront. As we suggest later, much of the confusion could be avoided if a definitive official account of the number of targets met across Government were to be produced, properly audited and validated by an independent body.

Confused accountability and the problems with league tables

74. One major cause of confusion over accountability is the fact that the centre does not have a strong enough sense of the importance of geography. Although the Westminster system tries to centralise the responsibility for the performance of all public services, the delivery of those services is dispersed, and often devolved. Most major public services have never been delivered by Whitehall departments. Departments do not have their hands on the management of programmes: they supervise policies for which ministers answer to Parliament. A decade and more of structural reforms in public administration has increased the complexity of what is, in effect, multi-layered government. At the top is a layer of Whitehall departments; in the middle are a set of institutions, such as local authorities or health bodies, supervising the delivery of public services. At the bottom are individuals who meet the public when they go to a school, a doctor's surgery or a public library. This complex geography has a profound effect on accountability and motivation.

75. There are therefore fundamental problems with the accountability of any target that is set centrally without proper reference to those on the front line. As long as targets are being met, the centre and local providers can happily claim ownership and credit. However, if a target is missed, this may well lead to acrimonious dispute about where blame rests. If impossible targets are set, then disowning responsibility for pre-ordained failure will be the first priority of the front line body which has been assigned such a hopeless task. It is a recipe for the growth of a blame culture.

76. When government chooses extremely ambitious targets, there is the danger (whatever the intention) that any achievement short of 100% success is classified as failure. Simplistic approaches of this kind, with political and media charges about failures fully to meet targets, can be profoundly demoralising to school heads and classroom teachers, police officers and hospital staff who have worked hard to achieve progress in the face of local difficulties. Crude league tables and star ratings can be particularly misleading and demotivating. They tend to make everybody except the 'league champions' look and feel like a failure. They offer only a simple snapshot when the reality is much more complex.

77. This leads to tensions, demoralisation and perceived injustices. John Bangs of the NUT described how he had witnessed the way that educationalists in Tower Hamlets, where he had taught for many years, were demoralised by their position in the league tables:

"For English at Key Stage 2, the national percentage for getting young children at level one—that is when they are seven—to level four, at the end of Key Stage 2, when they are 11—level one is below the average at Key Stage 1—is 32%. In Tower Hamlets, with a Bangladeshi population of round about 65-70%, and also a big turnover, demographically shifting all the time, they managed to take level ones to level fours to 53%. It is over 20% higher than the national average. This is an enormous success, yet because Tower Hamlets failed to meet its nationally set target, it is considered to be a stuck authority… there are better measures than that for evaluating what is an enormous success for young people and for teachers".[63]

78. The classic example of distorted accountability at ministerial level is the original numeracy and literacy targets in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Failure to meet this target contributed to the resignation of Rt Hon Estelle Morris as Education Secretary. Yet significant progress had been made, even if this fell somewhat short of the targets. The outcome of this 'failed' target actually represented a substantial improvement over the previous situation. Ms Morris told us:

"I would not have felt the need to resign because the literacy and numeracy targets had not been met, it was the best thing I did while I was in office, it is the thing I am hugely proud of and the government has every right to be proud of. The difference was I said I would resign if the targets were not met and at that point it became different".[64]

79. This kind of example seems to us to be accountability gone mad, a case of process taking over from reality. At lower levels, we heard evidence of the 'P45 targets', success against which is seen as crucial to the survival of hospital chief executives.

80. We heard from several witnesses that school league tables had not reflected the rate of improvement of particular schools. The NUT also argued that even value-added tables were not the complete answer, failing to take into account other social factors such as migration patterns in the school-aged population. Nevertheless, there were signs that ministers had seriously considered using such flawed tables to decide on the fate of headteachers.[65] Whatever the truth of the matter, this is not a message that inspires confidence that the lesson that crude targeting is counterproductive has yet been learned in all parts of government.

81. Whereas none of our witnesses suggested that performance information should not be made publicly available, its relevance and interpretation were real concerns. Professor Brighouse saw a "dilemma of competing good".[66] Whereas improvement requires knowledge and awareness of where best practice can be found, simplistic interpretation, by the media among others, distorts this objective, emphasising a crude form of accountability rather than helping to improve services.

82. Crude league tables do not necessarily help to identify and disseminate good practice, and are instead "often used in a primitive way"[67] and "on balance are very often more harmful than they are productive".[68] The evidence we received from professionals supported this view, with the star ratings for hospitals suffering particular criticism for their failure to reflect clinical outcomes. The RCN suggested that far too much was riding on these ratings, including the opportunity of applying for foundation hospital status :

"Hospital star ratings are a powerful tool as they are used to determine access to the performance fund, which amounted to £250 million in 2001-02 and £500 million in 2003-04, and the extent of 'earned autonomy'… As a consequence, the need to achieve high star ratings has enormous potential to distort organisational systems and directly influence staff behaviour in ways which might not be conducive to patient care".[69]

83. Evidence from the private sector suggest that league tables, whether used internally or externally, need to be interpreted with care. Lord Browne said BP's experience with league tables was "mixed":

"At one stage we did decide to rank order performance of very small units within one of our divisions, the retail division I think. This was interesting to start with. It said to people 'I can see where we need to go'. Continuous attention on the league table, however, made the league table itself the purpose, not the learning. It is very important, I think, that league tables, or whatever measurement, should be used to improve and to learn rather than be the end in itself".[70]

84. Lord Browne told us that in the private sector it could sometimes be good to fail in relation to a target, if the failure contributed to organisational learning. The contrast with the treatment of targets in the political world could not be more stark.

85. On the other hand, we heard evidence of the more sophisticated approach embodied in the Comprehensive Performance Assessments (CPA), which the Audit Commission has introduced into local government. Using a degree of self-assessment and striving to put the raw data in the broader context of performance, they seek to evaluate the capacity and skills of local authorities.

86. There is also a need for greater clarity about what (and whom) the publication of performance data is for, and therefore the form that it should take. Is it to enable citizens to choose? Or to spur providers to do better? Or to offer reassurance about the spending of public money? Or to provide the basis for either the grant of greater freedoms or the imposition of greater controls? There can, of course, be more than one purpose, but in each case it is important to be clear what these are and, therefore, what is the most appropriate form of publication of performance information.

The measurement culture adapts

87. The case of the CPA is one example of the way that the measurement culture has, over the years, proved more adaptable than its harsher critics recognise. Governments have, since the beginning of the 1990s, recognised that setting targets and performance management call for skill, care and continuous learning from experience.[71] This has led to a flow of guidance from central departments and others over the last decade, since targets began to be set for Executive Agencies, and also to statements of explicit policy changes over time in the PSA White Papers and elsewhere.

88. Since PSAs were introduced in 1998 many changes have been made and our evidence suggests that the Government is preparing to make more. As we saw above, the number of targets has been sharply reduced, from 366 in 1998 to 123 in 2002.[72] These crude figures may exaggerate the reduction, but the number of targets has roughly halved to an average of about 6 or 7 per department.

89. Even at its most vigorous and assertive, in the first three years of the present administration, the measurement culture was moderated by common sense and the principles of the performance culture. Rt Hon Estelle Morris MP crystallised the point when she reminded us that "…literacy and numeracy was essentially a professional development strategy. You have talked about targets but where the money was spent and where the time was spent was in retraining every single primary school teacher in best practice English and maths".[73]

90. Thus targets and league tables have to be seen in context as one of a wider range of measures for improving public services. More targets are now outcome (or output) related. Floor targets were introduced in 2000. Some key targets have been changed (for example the switch between waiting list numbers to waiting times in health) or abandoned as unhelpful or unrealistic (examples are drugs and traffic congestion). It is recognised that if targets are stretching, some of them are likely to be missed, but that good progress can still be made. Targets have become less rigid, and more 'aspirational' (although there appears to be little understanding of the impact of that change in approach).

91. There is also a greater emphasis from the centre on consultation The 2002 Pre-Budget Report said "all departments should consult delivery bodies at the target formulation stage".[74] It is acknowledged within government that more needs to be done. There has been progress in the relations between central and local government through the introduction of Local PSAs with targets which reflect a mixture of central and local priorities, though the numerical targets are set by central government, and are backed up by grants to help achieve the targets and by extra freedoms or flexibilities. The Government has also tried to improve the quality of performance monitoring and management. Official guidance on performance information in government appeared in a 2001 publication called Choosing the Right FABRIC: A Framework for Performance Information, jointly published by the Treasury and Cabinet Office among others.[75]

92. This developing tentative acceptance of shortcomings by the centre is now being matched by an acceptance among professionals that government by measurement is here to stay. The RCN acknowledged that targets had some value: "It is unlikely that the Government will abandon performance management and there is a case that targets have been central to delivering some significant improvements in the NHS. Consequently, the RCN believes that performance management systems should be improved rather than abandoned".[76]

93. Ministers have also made some specific changes in policy and tone. In the recent DfES White Paper on Excellence and Enjoyment, a strategy for primary schools, there are signs of a very different approach to targets. The paper proposes several striking changes in the regime for primary school targets. Among other things, it accepts headteachers' arguments that at present schools sometimes end up with targets which fit LEA or national targets but which schools do not own, and crucially says that in future schools will set their own targets with LEA targets being set afterwards.[77]

94. The problem is that, for all the attempts to correct the excesses of the measurement culture, the overwhelming impression from our witnesses was still negative. While the Education Secretary promotes the idea that national targets for literacy and numeracy should be treated as less of a mantra, he is accused of wanting to use the new 'value-added' tables to single out headteachers for the sack.[78]

95. In the next Chapter, we explore some proposals for achieving a more sensible and intelligent balance.

21   Cabinet Office (2002), Better government services: Executive agencies in the 21st century; page 32. Back

22   PST 54 Back

23   Q 72 Back

24   PST 30 Back

25   Q 516 Back

26   Q 515 Back

27   Q 965 Back

28   Q 967 Back

29   Q 66 Back

30   Q 347 Back

31   PST 31A Back

32   Q 538 Back

33   Q 476 Back

34   In particular during discussions with front-line staff during the Committee's visit to Bristol. Back

35   Q 410 Back

36   PST 60 Back

37   Q 194 Back

38   PST 15 Back

39   Q 199 Back

40   Q 17 Back

41   Q 970 Back

42   PST 07 Back

43   Ibid. Back

44   PST 42 Back

45   Q 2 Back

46   Q 742-43 Back

47   Q 431 Back

48   Guardian and Independent 7 May 2003 Back

49   Q 13 Back

50   Q 2, Q 179 and PST 40 Back

51   Colin Meek "Raising alarm" Health Which? August 2002 Back

52   National Audit Office (2001), Inpatient and outpatient waiting in the NHS, HC 221 (2001-02); and National Audit Office (2001), Inappropriate adjustments to NHS waiting lists, HC 452 (2001-02). Back

53   PST 54 Back

54   PST 21 Back

55   Ibid. Back

56   Statistics Commission, Annual Report 2002-03 Back

57   Q 1063 and PST 60 Back

58   'Holding to Account': The Review of Audit and Accountability for Central Government Feb 2001 Back

59   Departmental Annual Report and Estimates 2002, Fifth Report 2002-03, HC 78-I, para. 19 Back

60   HM Treasury Departmental Report 2003 Back

61   Financial Times 7 July 2003 Back

62   Sunday Times 6 July 2003 Back

63   Q 234 Back

64   Q 949 Back

65   'Unsettling Scores' Times Educational Supplement 27 June 2003 Back

66   Q 375 Back

67   Q 177 Back

68   Q 600 Back

69   PST 40 Back

70   Q 328 Back

71   see HC 482-I Session 2002-03 and HC 563-I 2002-03 Back

72   Comprehensive Spending Reviews 1998 and 2002 Back

73   Q 956 Back

74   'Steering a steady course: Delivering stability, enterprise and fairness in an uncertain world' HMT November 2002 Back

75   see HMT press release 37/01 Back

76   PST 40 Back

77   'Excellence and Enjoyment: A Strategy for Primary Schools' DfES May 2003 Back

78   TES Op.cit. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 22 July 2003