Category Archives: performance management

Perpetual penality – thinking about targets with Mead and Foucault

I found myself among a group of school governors talking about targets. Every year in the UK school governors have a statutory obligation to set targets for levels of examination passes for pupils taking GCSE examinations at 16. The governors cannot set a target below last year’s – it must be the same or higher, even if the cohort on the point of taking their examinations is deemed to be weaker.

So should we set the target in line with what the statistical predictor (a figure derived from past performance) indicates is realistic, or should we set something more ambitious than that? Additionally, there might be other areas of teaching where we might set targets for ourselves even though we are not obliged to do so. This would look good during the next inspection, that we as a group of governors are prepared invent more ways of holding ourselves to account and scrutiny.

Just as annual setting of targets is something of a ritual, so too is the debate that follows. Continue reading


Targets and Inspection

Recent press stories about low standards in some NHS hospitals, where up to 12 hospitals have been judged inadequate by the semi-autonomous body Dr Foster’s, have once again raised questions about targets, inspection and standards. We have been treating similar themes in this blog (see below The Tyranny of Targets and Performance Measures). The discussion has become much more animated in a context where standards of hygiene and care have more than just nominal implications, but can make the difference between life and death for patients. The debate seems to swing between two poles: on the one hand, the argument goes, it is no longer enough to rely on self-assessment, since some of the failing hospitals judged themselves excellent. Therefore the right approach must be more stringent, on-the-spot inspections. This is an argument for adding to the bureaucracy of inspection. The more free-market argument is to encourage the public to vote with their feet, and to stop using hospitals that fail to meet basic standards. As consumers we are encouraged to exercise our right to ‘exit’ the service. Neither approach seems to ask what kinds of work practices allow highly trained professional staff to ignore what must be very obvious to them in terms of low standards. To what extent does the practice of government ‘naming and shaming’ and the anxiety that this evokes in top NHS managers encourage them to prevent staff pointing out the obvious for fear of jeopardising the hospital’s reputation? How possible is it to speak out in hospitals even if what one has to say is unpalatable? Neither inspection nor consumer exit deals with the ethical responsibility of staff in situ, both managers and health professionals to find ways of talking about and dealing with the difficult situations they find themselves in together.

Inspection and other forms of control

I was working with some teachers in a school the other day when the conversation turned to inspection and evidence. The new UK school inspection regime is based much more clearly on teachers’ and managers’ assessments of how they think they are doing – they have to fill in what is called a SEF, or self-evaluation form – which is then offered to incoming inspectors as the primary basis for their inspection. According to the Department for Education, evidence has to be rigorous, has to be written down and has to demonstrate ‘impact’. The inspectors then judge not just the quality of teaching and learning in school, but also the quality of the SEF. The idea is that the inspection becomes an assessment of teachers’ ability to assess themselves in the given form of the SEF.CCTV

Since I have taken a long-term interest in encouraging reflection and reflexivity in the posts in this blog , I was interested to note my own resistance not to the idea of self-evaluation but to the way it was being put forward and the ideology of relentless improvement and scrutiny that it implies. Continue reading

Targets and wholes

The following post is written by Rob Warwick. Rob works in areas of strategic change in the UK’s National Health Service. He is particularly interested in how policy makes its way from Government to the front line. This is currently the area of research for his doctorate with the Complexity Management Centre at the University of Hertfordshire.

There has been much talk in the UK press recently about spending cuts to curb public expenditure as a result of the recent economic downturn.  Politicians talk of 5%, 10% 15% cuts – conveniently rounded numbers.  What is absent is the detail of how this will or could play out.  Whichever government comes to power after the general election is likely to take these rough (but neatly rounded) percentage figures and turn them into targets, budgets, action plans and the like.  It reminded me of a book by Michael Barber called Instruction to Deliver, retelling his account of how he led Tony Blair’s “Delivery Unit” after the 2001 General Election.  A book comes with a new word “Deliverology” and a “Delivery Manual” at the end.  I don’t intend to write a book review here, but I would simply like to point out how little the actual experience of the practitioner (the teacher, nurse, or even the manager) features.  Take for example the then Health Secretary’s (Alan Milburn)  mission: “He was very clear what his task was –  to drive through the reforms, take on the vested interests, bring in private sector providers …and build on … choice … to ensure results were met” (Barber, 2007, p132).  No mention of what was valued by nurses or doctors as practitioners whose job it was to make people better. Continue reading

The Queen, emergence and systems theory

A group of economists at the London School of Economics have felt impelled to write to the Queen in response to her question posed a year ago when she was on a visit to the university as to the cause of the banking collapse.The Queen

The letter explains that there was a ‘psychology of denial’ affecting all those concerned, and in a touching note of humility drawing attention to the fact that many very intelligent people were caught up in this collective denial, the letter goes on to explain that  “it is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris”.

“Everyone seemed to be doing their own job properly on its own merit. And according to standard measures of success, they were often doing it well,” they say. “The failure was to see how collectively this added up to a series of interconnected imbalances over which no single authority had jurisdiction.” (my emphasis added) Continue reading

The tyranny of targets and performance measures

John Seddon’s book Systems Thinking in the Public Sector is a well-written and powerful reminder of the limitations of targets and performance measures in public services. Targets, he argues oblige managers to pay attention to the wrong things, what politicians require rather than what local service users need and this leads to perverse consequences. Targets prevent staff from dealing with the variety of what they encounter by obliging them to serve inflexible and predetermined rules which have been set by someone else sitting outside the situation that local staff and managers are dealing with. Targets and performance measures arise out of an ideology of control and a pessimistic assessment of public sector staff: that if civil servants are not standing over them with exacting standards then somehow they won’t do their jobs properly. It has resulted in what he describes as an army of bureaucrats whose job it is to specify, inspect and report compliance on targets and measures which are driving public services away from what the public really wants and needs. In these ways this approach has contributed hugely to waste and cost.

He describes the difficulty he has had of getting many of his ideas accepted because setting targets has become axiomatic – to suggest that setting targets is the cause of many of the problems rather than the solution to the problems is to present oneself as being eccentric. Seddon points to the ways in which other ungrounded  idelogical obsessions, that consumer ‘choice’ is the best way to develop services, that IT is always a cheaper option, that the private sector will always deliver a better deal for service users, have come to dominate decision-making and management in the public sector. Continue reading

How current theories of management reduce the meaning of education

In a similar vein to the last post, I came across a report which has been produced recently on the education of 14-19 year olds in Britain entitled Education for All. One of the themes of the report is the way in which the language and concepts of management have prevailed in the sector and in doing so have reduced the understanding of what education might mean:

“As the language of management and performance has advanced, so we have proportionately lost a language of education which recongises the intrinsic value of pursuing certain types of question, or trying to make sense of reality (physical, social, economic and moral), of seeking understanding, of exploring through literature and the arts what it means to be human…” Continue reading