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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited
The role and function of performance measurement has been much on the mind of the British Government in recent days. The new Labour Government, as many new governments do, filled their election manifesto in 1997 with ambitious forecasts of what they would achieve when in government. The public sector services would be much improved and it would be possible for them to measure the improvement by careful and close target setting which would then be assessed by performance measurement. They assumed, as many other people have, that it is possible to measure public services in much the same way as the private sector: there could be a balance sheet published once a year which would prove whether the service had been successful or not, with a variety of indicators, instead of an account of profit and loss.
But life and public sector management is not that easy and new Labour has been hoisted on this petard. They have confused organisational objectives and goals with a plethora of targets, which have not been carefully set and have not been validated by appropriate professional staff.
The Government implemented a system of Comprehensive Performance Assessment and measured each local authority against these. In December 2002, The Audit Commission produced a league table rating English county, metropolitan, unitary and London councils as excellent, good, fair, weak, poor. The reward for being at the top of the table will be more "hands off" management, more freedom to manage the service and less performance management. The penalty of being the bottom of the table is the service being taken away from the agency or local authority and managed centrally. However, in January, James Strachan, chair of the Audit Commission said "The slavish devotion to targets, many of which have not been set very intelligently, is a sure fire way of not getting improvement in public services" (Strachan, 2003). It demonstrates that the increased use of public sector performance measurement is the result of "micro-meddling" in the work of the public sector, and demonstrates the lack of trust that the government has in the professional staff who manage their services. Strachan (2003) also said "Crude league tables on balance are often more harmful than productive. The reduction of targets to their true level of value is something we have to continue to think very hard about." The target culture will fail services.
Onora O'Neill, in the annual BBC Reith Lecture she entitled "A question of trust", said "We seek greater accountability by appointing supervisory bodies, ordering audits, stiffening professional codes and publishing league tables of performance. But it is far from clear whether they achieve what they set out to do. In some respects they make matters worse" (O'Neill, 2002). We must ensure that our own performance indicators continue to be seen as an important professional management tool. Government's role must be to set its own goals with fewer overall targets which merely reflect short term priorities.
In the meantime we continue to grapple to establish appropriate methodologies for our new age. Any response to Steve Thornton's "Opinion piece" will be gratefully received by the Editor – and published. I look forward to hearing from you.
ReferencesO'Neill, O. (2002), "BBC Reith Lectures. Lecture three: called to account", Broadcast on BBC Radio Four, 19 April 2002.Strachan, J. (2003), "Target culture will fail on services", The Independent, 10 January, p. 8.