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Using targets to improve public services

Government targets in public services may do more harm than good.

Government targets in public services may do more harm than good.

The government has added new targets to existing ones across key public services such as the NHS, schools and the police, which it hopes will improve performance in those services hit by the Covid-crisis.

But this report reveals the way that targets have been used for easy wins, have ignored important issues and manipulated data. For example, the government’s target to process 100,000 coronavirus tests a day by 30 April 2020 was only achieved by encouraging testing of low-priority cases and reclassifying what counted as a test.

It cites examples within the NHS and police to show how targets can also create overwhelming amounts of paperwork, with staff focusing more on filling in forms than helping the public. And those delivering public services can be demotivated by working to targets, rather than using their professional judgement.

But if planned well, targets can improve performance. The report shows how the four-hour A&E waiting time target resulted in a 14% reduction in the proportion of people dying within 30 days of attending A&E. Nor is scrapping targets always right: for example, pupils in Welsh schools fell behind those in England after the Welsh government did away with school league tables.

To ensure that new targets are not counterproductive, the government should:

  • develops targets in partnership with those responsible for meeting them
  • carefully considers the data that is needed, how this is collected and how it will be used to avoid creating unnecessary paperwork for frontline staff
  • reviews targets regularly and amends or scraps them if they are having unintended consequences.
Institute for Government

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