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CYC-Online Issue 83 DECEMBER 2005 / BACK
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Off target!

Mark Smith

Last month I questioned how inspections of public services can have unintended consequences which, rather than acting to improve provision, can have the opposite effect, by measuring performance against externally set agendas, failing to acknowledge context and as a consequence, demoralising the staff groups who are on the end of such inspections.

This month I want to continue in a similar vein and question the notion of target setting in the public services, another manifestation of the managerial zeitgeist. Now I believe that we all need some vision of where our agency is going, objectives about how we might get there and some idea as to when we might have arrived. Working in such a way is about understanding our own organisation and its needs and about setting out our aspirations for it. In many respects it calls for an artistic and intuitive sense and understanding of our workplace.

The problem comes when these aims and objectives become removed from the particular circumstances of our own agencies and embedded in some ostensibly objective and universal set of targets. An example might be that residential child care units are set targets to boost the number of kids who leave care with recognised educational qualifications. All good and well, but such stark targets make a whole load of assumptions. They assume that poor educational achievement is a consequence of the inadequacies of a kid's care experience rather than wider structural issues of poverty, disadvantage and low expectation. They further assume that cultures which value educational achievement can be produced in residential care settings that fail to demand or validate appropriate educational and qualification levels among staff groups. And they privilege a view of education that valorises instrumental and externally validated attainment. And in the scheme of things kids achieving one or two basic level qualifications are unlikely to substantially improve their life chances. It might just build in a level of discontent among those who get them but are still consigned to turning burgers for a living or who, worse still, can’t get a job even with their qualifications. For many kids learning trade skills and being placed with nurturing local employers might be far more appropriate to their needs.

Another problem with targets is that they have a habit of backfiring. The Scottish Executive has set itself targets to reduce youth offending, for instance, and has supported a whole range of projects to that end, only to find that the figures for youth offending seem to have increased. Complex dynamics are at work in such examples, cautioning us against reliance on linear and cause-and-effect ways of thinking. Highlighting and making an issue of emotive subjects such as youth offending can serve to raise expectations among the police, for instance, who (operating to their own targets) may charge kids where previously they would have given them a warning. This inevitably brings more of them into the system and skews the figures. It tells us nothing really about whether youth offending is going up, down or staying much the same.

The wider point is that targets need to be context specific. They need to reflect the needs and circumstances of particular work settings rather than being seen as abstract and de-contextualised. When they become ends in themselves, energies that should be directed towards improving services for kids become channelled to meeting targets. This leads to a whole apparatus designed to monitor this process, quality assurance, information management, complaints etc., all no doubt justified under the guise of a few buzzwords such as choice, responsiveness, modernisation, excellence. Practitioners will recognise the tendency for such departments within organisations to take on a life of their own. A notion of anti-task sets in where the focus of managers” and practitioners” efforts becomes about meeting external demands rather than going with the flow of actual operational needs.

I’m writing this column in Dublin airport waiting for a plane home having spoken at a seminar on physical restraint. One of the workshops I attended questioned the reliance on the use of the proprietary programmes that have sprung up in this area. It reinforced the need for training to reflect the particular needs of staff on the ground and to reflect the particular remits and needs of different units rather than assuming there was some sort of “one size fits all” solution to such a complex area of practice. According to this workshop, training needed to start with where units were at, and be based on practitioner experience. Now there’s a novel idea. Maybe we could apply it more gernerally.

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