Targets? What targets? Change and Continuity in the performance regime in Whitehall

We were told, when the new Coalition Government came to be, that it would put an end to “New Labour targetry”. The use of targets for public sector performance had become a bête noir of both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in Opposition and they apparently couldn’t wait to scrap the whole lot once they were in power.

And indeed they did immediately scrap the Public Service Agreements (30) and Departmental Strategic Objectives (95 for the Departments we have counted).

But for the past two decades I have had this annoying habit – I don’t believe Governments, especially about these sorts of things. So I have done what I usually do and gone and counted. And the answers are surprising, even to me.

What we* counted was two things.

First, we counted (for 17 departments) how many high level Departmental Strategic Objectives  (DSOs) they had at the end of the Labour Government in 2010. (We ignored the 30 PSA targets, because these were now ‘whole of government’ targets’).

Second, we counted how many high-level targets we could find that equated to DSOs in the Departmental Business Plans (DBPs) published by the Coalition in 2011 and 2012.

Under New labour these departments had 95 targets, but under the Coalition this jumped to an average of 453 for the past two years, or a 476% increase on the previous number of targets. (To be fair, if we added back in the 30 PSAs this reduces to only a 362% increase.)

Also to be fair to the Coalition, the total for 2011 was 510 but by 2012 that had come down to 395, so they are on a downward trend – but at that rate it’ll be the end of the parliament before they get back down to New Labour’s level of ‘targetry’.

And of course the Coalitions ‘targets’ are somewhat different, in the sense that they tend to target different things in different ways – for example many are targets to deliver policy change X or reorganisation Y by a specific date. (But like the previous government they have already developed a habit of quietly dropping, or changing, targets they didn’t meet).

We will be publishing a much more detailed analysis of this phenomenon in due course, but these headline findings were so stark we thought it was worth sharing them straightaway.

Department

New Labour Targets

(2010)

Coalition Targets (Average for 2011 and 2012)

Increase in Number of Targets

Education

6

25

+19

Treasury

2

24

+22

Home Office

7

35

+28

Defence

3

24

+21

Justice

5

36

+31

HMRC

3

5

+2

Foreign Office

10

17

+7

Health

3

33

+30

Energy & Climate

7

18

+11

Work and Pensions

8

37

+29

Transport

4

17

+13

Int’l Development

7

21

+14

Environment

8

17

+9

Culture, Media, Sport

4

27

+23

Local Government

6

37

31

Business

6

49

43

Cabinet Office

6

35

29

TOTALS

95

453

358

AVERAGES

6

27

21

(* thanks to Roberta Akpan, a student at Manchester, for her research assistance).

7 thoughts on “Targets? What targets? Change and Continuity in the performance regime in Whitehall

  1. I suggest that you make the comparison more valid by excluding all “targets” in Departmental Business Plans that are project milestones to finish pieces of work rather than outcome or output measures.

  2. Interesting point Alan and one which will be addressed in our later analysis. But it isn’t quite so simple, because lots of New Labour PSA and DSO “targets” addressed varied things – not just outcomes (or even outputs). None of the five ‘sets’ of New Labour targets, from 1998 through to 2007, or the two sets under the Coalition (2011 and 12) are fully comparable in that sense because they are nearly all contain a different a mix of input, process, efficiency, output, outcome and milestone-type targets. So which do you exclude? But your point is taken and will be considered in our later analysis. The point still stands tho – there is a lot more continuity in performance measurement and reporting than the present government wants to admit, and in some areas there has undoubtedly been an increase nota decrease.

  3. Excluding milestone targets would hide the fact that (to its credit) New Labour learnt by experience that these are often pointless – a lesson which the Coalition has clearly ignored.
    Milestone targets frequently become irrelevant/unachievable/embarrassing because Ministerial priorities change. Outcome target are more likely to stand the test of time.

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