Why targets should never be sacred cows

I have been interviewed for four newspaper editorships, twice successfully.

Invariably, I was asked to give my "target" for circulation. I would usually give a figure about 20 per cent higher than the existing circulation as my target within two years, and another figure, about 50 per cent higher, as the five-year target. The interviewers would look impressed, and nod sagely.

But both question and answer were meaningless. Did the interviewers pick the editor who gave the highest target? Of course not. Did I have any reason for choosing a 20 per cent rise as opposed to a 10 or 40 per cent one? Of course not.

This Government is obsessed with targets. It has set (or caused to be set) several thousand targets for ministries, quangos, councils, hospitals, schools and so on. Some of them, dug out by my New Statesman colleague Nick Cohen a couple of years ago, are laughable. For example, the UK Atomic Energy Authority aimed to"increase the favourability of media coverage by 43.9-50 per cent" and had a firm in Surrey measuring the authority's press coverage "scientifically".

The difficulty with targets is that they can have unintended side-effects.

Robert Conquest, in one of his studies of the Soviet Union, told the story of one AN Larionov, first secretary of the Ryazan province. His target was to double meat production in a year. Easy: he slaughtered all the cows and breeding-bulls. He duly became a hero of Socialist Labour; but he committed suicide when someone noticed there was not a cow left in the province. In the same spirit, firms can meet huge sales targets by slashing their products' prices and bankrupting themselves in the process.

There are plenty of new Labour equivalents. The first-term target to reduce hospital waiting lists by 100,000 led to a rush to treat relatively trivial conditions while victims of cancer and heart disease were neglected.

In education, the target to get infant class sizes under 30 led to larger classes for upper primary and secondary pupils; while the targets for 11-year-olds getting to level 4 in maths and English have led to a narrow focus on test technique, a neglect of music, drama and art, a concentration on a small number of children at the borderline and much cheating.

Yet I understand ministers' thinking in setting the education targets. They wanted to emphasise the importance of the early years; and they wanted to remind schools of their core functions and, in defiance of all the traditions of English education, to persuade them to give a higher priority to bringing the less able up to acceptable levels of literacy and numeracy. Targets can have a function in focusing minds and setting priorities.

But they also skew people's behaviour in strange directions. Politicians, of all people, ought to understand this because they spend their lives making promises and then using every imaginable sophistry to claim they have kept the promises when they have not.

I make two proposals for the future. First, the Government should set a target of reducing by 80 per cent the number of targets in all areas of public activity by 2004. (Yes, I have plucked both the percentage and the date out of the air, just as the Government does for all its targets.) Second, it should always apply the Larionov test. Every new target, before it is launched, should be sent to a special Whitehall unit. This would put itself in the shoes of the ordinary teacher, health worker or whoever and consider, from a purely selfish, short-term, cynical and careerist point of view, how the target might most easily be achieved, without regard to either morality or the public interest. Then ministers would at least be prepared for the unintended consequences.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you