Session 2002-03

Press Notice No.16


Commons Committee urges radical reform

PASC-the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee-today calls on the Government to move quickly to rationalise the number of performance targets in health, education and other public services. As part of a "root and branch reform" of the system of performance measurement, it also wants service users and front line workers to have more say in how targets are set.

In a report published today (HC 62-I) the Committee concludes that there are shortcomings in the way the Government presents its achievements against targets-but also with the criticisms levelled by the Conservatives. It calls for "independent verification by a credible external source" to end confusion about the number of targets that have been met, and criticises the way in which the whole issue of targets has become a political (and media) football.

The Report lists the advantages of the "measurement culture" of performance targets and league tables, including greater accountability and transparency to the public and Parliament. It applauds the Government's aspirations in using targets to promote common standards, and gives examples of talented managers who make use of performance information to pinpoint problems and motivate their staff. It concludes that targets, and measurement generally, have an important role to play in public service improvement.

But it also compiles evidence, from services ranging from primary schools to ambulance services, which suggests that targets and tables can hamper service delivery-the "five failings". These failings are:

•    lack of clarity about what the Government is trying to achieve;

•    failure to give a clear sense of direction for those who provide services;

•    failure to focus on delivering results, leading to perverse consequences and sometimes even cheating;

•    failures in reporting and monitoring performance; and

•    confused accountability.

The Report describes some parts of the measurement culture as being "in danger of threatening standards", and criticises the "arbitrary" way in which some targets are set. It says that departments sometimes "appear to pluck targets out of the air in support of the latest initiative", warning that "such targets will command neither respect nor credibility".

The Committee expresses concern that, despite the Government's best intentions, many people in the public services have "serious reservations" about the use of targets and tables. It asks why "the measurement culture is seemingly expanding while ministers claim that targetry is being radically slimmed down".

The Committee recommends that the Government should produce proposals to decentralise performance management and ensure that the 'new localism' proclaimed by the Government becomes a reality. It urges the Government to set out the reforms urgently in a white paper, to be published in time to influence the 2004 Spending Review. It also urges the Government to make sure that civil servants in charge of policy understand front line service delivery better.

There is also a recommendation that the Government should publish an independently audited Annual Performance Report.

Commenting today, Committee Chairman Tony Wright MP said:

"Measurement is a vital part of public service. Without it, there would be no incentive on services to improve and no means of assessing progress. The Government's intentions in setting targets and drawing up league tables are admirable.

"But something seems to be amiss with the detailed implementation of Government policy. There are too many targets, and they do not always measure the right things. While the number of 'headline' targets has been reduced, the strong impression from the 'sharp end' of services is that the burden of the measurement culture on front line workers and their managers has increased. Demoralisation and resentment of targets are common. At times, managers seem to use their creativity to find ways around targets rather than to improve services. And, as the Report reveals, both Government and the main Opposition indulge in spin around the number of targets met, making sensible discussion of the role of targets almost impossible. League tables are often seen as misleading and sometimes unfair.

"To tackle these problems, we urge the Government to decentralise performance management in the spirit of the oft-proclaimed 'new localism'. Front line workers (and service users) should be much more involved in target-setting and the overall burden of targets should be reduced to the absolute minimum necessary to guarantee key national entitlements. There should be much more room for leadership and capacity-building - what we call the "performance culture". Without that, the measurement culture is doomed to failure. 

"We also demand independent validation of achievement against targets, to avoid the sort of massaging of the figures that diminishes trust in the political process. It is ridiculous that inflation and unemployment statistics are published by a neutral body, while the equally important figures for public service performance are not.

"But time is very short. Already the Treasury is well advanced with preparations for the next spending round, with its attendant targets. Action needs to be taken now to make targets work better if the Government's aspirations for the 'new localism' are to become a reality."  

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For further information please telephone Philip Aylett,
Clerk of the Committee on 020 7219 3498

Tony Wright may be contacted for press inquiries on
020 7219 5583

Publications and evidence, including uncorrected evidence, is also available on the Internet at: 

For information regarding forthcoming meetings including venues and times please call the House of Commons Committee Information Line on 020 7219 2033 (updated daily).