Monday, 29 June 2009

We Won't Miss The Targets

Good article by Philip Johnston in the Telegraph

"Our younger son is on a rite-of-passage trek across the globe and on Friday came the news from somewhere in South America that he had been mugged and all his bank cards stolen. Still, he was OK and it was not the end of the world; it just required me to cancel the cards and order him some new ones. The former is easy; the latter almost impossible.

After getting through an interminable succession of disembodied orders I finally spoke to a human being. "I am afraid that we need to talk to your son," he said. "Well you can't because he is in Peru, his mobile is not working and he is contacting us via the internet – and he can't get through your phalanx of automated instructions. Could you just send a replacement card to his home address and we will forward it?" "No, he has to call us." "I just explained that he cannot do so easily." "I know, I'm sorry but it's security."

We even went to his bank where we are known; and while staff were solicitous and helpful, we were told that they needed to speak to him. In the end, this will be sorted out, though it will take longer than it needs to. But the point here is that no one in the chain was allowed to make a decision for themselves. They were governed by orders, set centrally, that brooked no discretion or independent thought. Of course, security must be observed; but it was easy to establish that we were his parents. We possessed his birth certificate, proof of our identity and a joint address. But rules are rules. We would love to help, but we can't.

The same attitude has been evident in the public sector since Labour took office. Today, the Government will publish a policy document that will say – wait for it – that the target culture that has suffocated initiative for 12 years is to be abandoned because it is unlikely to deliver the reforms that the Labour Party wants to see. Instead, the various parts of the public sector that deliver services directly to us as taxpayers, such as the police, doctors and teachers, will be allowed to make more of their own judgments based on what is needed locally. Gordon Brown will announce the new approach in a document laughably entitled Building Britain's Future, together with a draft legislative programme for the next session of Parliament.

Can you believe this? Ministers who for years have been defending a system that has shown itself to be wasteful, inefficient and even perverse in its outcomes, now have the brass neck to stand up and say that, whoops, that didn't work after all, so here is Plan B.

Why were targets introduced? The Government would have you believe it was to drive up standards; but in reality they were a means of showing that Labour "cared". They were a political device. Whenever ministers were challenged about high levels of offending or poor levels of literacy they could say: "But we have a target to reduce it/increase it/scrap it, so we must be good." Targets were ostensibly introduced to hold the Government to account, but were used as a means of deflecting criticism.

The benchmarks were set not by you or me but by the very people who sought to obtain political capital from their attainment; and those who had to operate within this straitjacket found themselves unable to use their experience and discretion to do things a different way. Now, in a back-flip that would grace an Olympics gymnastic arena, Liam Byrne, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, says: "We need a power shift from Whitehall ministers and civil servants that currently have the power and move it to citizens."

He wants to give people an entitlement to services like good education, safe streets and effective health care. Remind me: what did we spend all the money on that has pushed public spending up to levels not seen since wartime? Labour's education policy, a top-down fiasco, has left hundreds of thousands of children lacking in basic numeracy and literacy skills. Don't worry, says Ed Balls, the Children's Minister: we are going to scrap the prescriptive teaching methods that we introduced and leave it to teachers to teach.

The target approach did not cut crime; it made it worse. While offences such as burglary and car theft fell because of better security, the streets became less safe. Police chiefs were under pressure to ensure their officers were at a crime scene within a fixed time period because this was measurable, unlike the deterrent nature of a local bobby doing his community rounds. Soon, fewer police officers were seen in public, either waiting around for something to happen or filling out the voluminous paperwork that was considered necessary to push up standards.

Mr Brown will no doubt say that Labour was always planning to move from a target-based approach designed to drive up standards to a greater emphasis on local decision making. But no one will believe him. The problem is that the first stage failed because the system was wrong. What we are witnessing is less an attempt to put things right than a death-bed recantation. The perpetrators will look in vain for absolution. "

Philip Johnston

The Penguin

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