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IFG - Covid-hit public services could be further disrupted by government targets

Government targets in public services may do more harm than good, warns a new paper from the Institute for Government.

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 new IfG research, 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.

The report 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 Institute for Government recommends that the government:

  • 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.

IfG programme director and report author Nick Davies said:

“Designed well, targets can focus minds and resources and improve the quality of services. But too often the government has got it wrong, picking targets that demotivate skilled staff and focus services on paperwork not people.

Targets will only ever be appropriate in certain circumstances. They can be particularly effective at raising minimum standards but are very unlikely to deliver the world class public services promised by the government."

Notes to editors

  • The full report can be found on our website.
  • The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  • For more information, including data to reproduce any charts, please contact / 0785 031 3791.
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