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Targets on our backs – or in front of us…

Government “ditches” or misses target is hardly man bites dog or Elvis and Lord Lucan caught together on top of Shergar.

But the recent Scottish Government announcement does give us policy wonks an opportunity to reflect on the nature and purpose of targets.

Is it better to have tried and failed rather than not set a goal; what’s the role of civil servants and researchers to challenge and support; and how can comparative data and targets improve cross-nation policy learning?

For many of us working in policy, particularly in the UK, when we think about targets and delivery, we think of Sir Michael Barber. His approach, as head of Tony Blair’s Delivery Unit earned the name “Deliverology”. In essence, he sought to improve government and public sector performance through target-setting, and associated policymaking and pressure, from the centre of government.

Sir Michael identified nine key issues for policymakers to deliver a target. These include emphasising accountability and leadership, levers for change, benchmarking, resources, and feedback. New Welsh First Minister Vaughan Gething is considering establishing his own Delivery Unit, perhaps recognising that the centre of Welsh Government needs a firmer grip on those “levers of change”.

As a former Welsh Government adviser, I must plead guilty to some history, perhaps even sophistry, on one target. We had to answer each month it seemed, to the Senedd and media, about an inherited numerical target for Wales’s scores in the international education tests PISA.

For the tests for which my minister was responsible, we did set a target of improving in each PISA domain and sub-set of measures. But alongside this, we re-framed the inherited numerical target as a “long term goal,” which led to accusations of “dropping” and being unambitious.

We felt that an immediate goal of improving in each domain, which Wales had never done, was a far more realistic, focused but still stretching target. We anticipated that it would get the buy-in from schools and the system. A system that was inherently sceptical about these tests.

In the end, we achieved our goal to improve in each domain, for the first time ever, linking our progress, buy-in and objectives to the wider education reform programme.

So, is the answer to just lower sights a little?

That is not the main lesson I would take. We should choose reform and making a difference not because it’s easy, but as JFK said because it is hard. Not every policy target is a moonshot of course, but as Tim Harford said recently, policymakers should remember that people want to “challenge themselves, to feel a sense of meaning”.

Targets can help create momentum and expectations. There has been a trend for setting long-term generational targets, as well as more immediate fiscal and economic targets. Sometimes these targets can be enshrined in law, or as agreements between governments and agencies.

All governments have sought to tackle child poverty for example, but setting and sticking to targets has proved to be trickier. The (Labour) UK Government had legislated to “eradicate” child poverty, but as part of wider reforms, the successor UK Government in effect repealed this commitment.

The Scottish Government has set a child poverty reduction target for 2030, but the Welsh Government was recently criticised for a new child poverty reduction strategy that avoided explicit targets. The Northern Ireland strategy also does not set a legally binding target.

On this issue, as with others, there can be a tension between relative measures and absolute targets. Within a devolved UK, the ability to benchmark performance and targets, as well as share learning, requires “coherence and comparability” on data. The recent work of Chief Statisticians, ONS and others to improve this should be welcomed.

Although it sometimes highlights issues around waiting lists or ambulance response times that should be a shared concern across administrations, it affords policymakers (and citizens) a better understanding and knowledge of cross-nation similarities and differences.

And that enables us all of us to work together, to share best practice and challenges, and to develop comparative and collaborative ideas and knowledge on how to improve solutions for citizens and services in each nation.

So, when working towards targets, or advising Ministers, I would suggest that we need to keep in mind:

  • Don’t ignore the Data. You need it to plan and agree the target, and it should then enable effective monitoring of outcomes and progress towards the target. Take a look at what Martin O’Malley did in Maryland.
  • The target must connect to, and be an expression, of the principles behind the policy reform or objective. If your policy principle is to widen access to higher education, then the target must show an increase in student numbers but must also demonstrate that access has widened to different and new groups of people.
  • There should be a shared understanding – in government, by the service providers and the service users – of what the target is and means. This includes the intended outcomes, as well as what the data is and what it tells us. This is essential to ensuring accountability and tracking progress.

We should continue to debate the role, and success, of policy targets across administrations. They can offer real clarity and purpose but should only be set and articulated as part of thorough policymaking, thinking and understanding.

by Dewi Knight, Director, PolicyWISE