Thursday 9 January 2014

The true costs of corrosive compliance

I know, I know, bloggers are endlessly vain about being proved right - and we so rarely are, that you have to hand it to us when one of our predictions turn up.

I have been arguing for some time that the whole system of transparency and accountability in public services is about to unravel - because Goodhart's Law is a good deal more ferocious that anyone expected.  And yesterday, it seemed for a moment as if I was going to be proved right.  A historic moment.

Goodhart's Law, as I may have said before, was formulated in the 1980s and was intended for monetary policy - it says that measures that are used to control people will always be inaccurate.

When the Blair government introduced 10,000 new targets in their first term of office, Goodhart's Law was ignored.  But it meant that frontline staff and their managers may be useless at their job, but they will always be able to finesse the target figures.

What I don't think any of us realised - even people like me who were deeply sceptical of the targets regime - was how corroding this would be.  It is beginning to become clear that far more creative energy went into finessing the target figures, manipulating the definitions in marginally justifiable ways, than went into actually doing the job.

There were the ministers talking about 'evidence-based policy', searching around for hard-objective numbers, when - all the time - those very numbers were slipping through their fingers.

I believe this year will prove to be the moment when it becomes clear just how empty these systems have become, and just how unreliable the figures are as a result.

And just as I said so, along comes the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, confirming that the figures for burglaries and sexual offences have been manipulated downwards, maybe by as much as a quarter - to fit in with the demands of the deputy mayor.

Anyone who has worked in the public sector or voluntary sector knows how corrosive these things are, and the enormous effort that goes into creating systems that can bypass them - the small changes in definition that change everything. 

Nor is it just the targets.  The whole caboodle of compliance and inspectors who use tickboxes rather than common sense have been doubling and re-doubling the effect.

Now, nobody claims - least of all me - that some other kind of system, that somehow allows frontline staff and service managers to focus on what they do best, is going to be easy to develop.  Certainly not a system that also holds them to account in some way, without undermining their efforts and hollowing out their institutions.

But something is necessary.  Because by the end of this year, I believe, we will begin to see the true cost of the targets and compliance regime of the Blair/Brown years, and it will begin to explain why public services have become so expensive that we seem - at least according to the Chancellor - not to be able to afford them any more.

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word subscribeto  When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsuscribe.

No comments: