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OPINION - TRENDY OR TRUE?

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David Puttnam once pointed out that if the number of Elvis impersonators were to increase at the same rate for the ...
David Puttnam once pointed out that if the number of Elvis impersonators were to increase at the same rate for the next 20 years as it has over the previous 20 years, then one in four of the world's population will be an Elvis impersonator. The whole of China, in other words.

The point, of course, is that just because something is trendy it does not make it true. The discussion about public services targets is a bit like this.

Three recent reports on targets in public services have come to the same set of conclusions. There is a lot that is useful and interesting in the reports from the public administration select committee, the Audit Commission and the education and skills select committee, but there is also danger lurking in these dry pages.

First, there are too many targets - according to the PAC, central government was subject to 123 targets in 2002. But lots of organisations have multiple targets. Perhaps a more interesting distinction is between information that should only be used internally - of which there might be a lot - and information that is used as a public measure - of which there might be less.

Second, targets should be set locally, by front-line deliverers rather than senior civil servants or ministers. It is true that many of the targets were plucked out of the air and this is often cited as a cause of low staff morale. However there is an obvious danger in allowing workers to set their own terms, and not just because they will be easy - whenever students set their own exam questions they tend to set impossible questions. Over many years now, politicians have over-promised, far more so than any sane private company would do. In effect, politicians have claimed that, soon enough, one in four of the world's population will be an Elvis impersonator. In fact, there is a target to make it so.

Third, targets offer no clear sense of direction for a service. Is the education system about GCSE results or equal access? Or is it about both? No doubt it is about both, but how do you set targets that balance the two objectives? Smart targets require something much more fundamental - clear priorities.

This consensus is pointing to one conclusion, which ought to be resisted, that targets should be abandoned. The danger is that the good is thrown away with the bad. That would be a real mistake. Yes, targets need to be refined and yes, we need to think about what we have learned about them. But nobody can imagine that a government can pour so much money into public services without effective accountability.

Targets are important and we ought not to abandon them - not for all the Elvises in China.

Phil Collins

Director, Social Market Foundation

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