Targets. They hurt, but (sometimes) they work

A u-turn on NHS waiting times shows the Conservatives have realised how hard it is getting things do

The Guardian reports today that the government has been forced to re-instate something resembling the old target for waiting times. Labour imposed a limit of 18 weeks as the maximum amount a patient should have to wait for an operation. The target was scrapped by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley since it represented an "arbitrary", "top down" bureaucratic approach. This, it was imagined, would be unnecessary because reforms would deliver a newly efficient, ultra-responsive market in health care in which patients' needs would be accommodated by the profusion of competing providers. Clearly, things aren't quite working out that way and a modified version of the 18-week limit will be back in place in the New Year.

The Conservatives in opposition were routinely scathing about targets, which, they argued, skewed outcomes by creating perverse incentives. Plainly this was true some of the time. A target of holding down waiting times in accident and emergency wards, for example, sometimes resulted in patients simply being sent away. And there is no doubt that New Labour came to rely too much on targets across Whitehall as a way to force the civil service to deliver what had been pledged by ministers, which was demoralising for the departments and skewed priorities.

But the reason Labour used targets so freely was because there weren't many other ways to make civil servants focus relentlessly on the government's priorities. They worked.

Many Conservatives in opposition persuaded themselves that Labour simply liked being bossy and controlling because that is what statist lefties do. I remember a conversation with a shadow minister (now a minister) before the election who told me with pride how he had deliberately not written any performance measures into a policy green paper because the Tory way was to create incentives and trust people, not to regulate them with targets. And what if the incentives aren't taken up? I asked. "We'll come up with better incentives."

In the early days of the coalition, a number of senior civil servants reported being told by incoming Tory ministers that the kind of measurements and targets that had previously been used to check performance in the system were no longer required because "that's not how we do things." It was an ideological shibboleth.

18 months into government, ministers are now finding - as was predictable - that without targets and specific performance measures, policies and pledges get lost in the system. Crudely speaking, unless someone is leaning down hard from above asking hard questions about why targets aren't met, nothing seems to happen. The appalling word that Downing Street under Tony Blair used to use for this stuff was "deliverology" - the art (or science, depending on your point of view) of actually getting things done in government.

It is becoming increasingly clear that David Cameron, with his predilection for presidential floating above the fray, has neglected this area. Steve Hilton, his policy chief, is constantly exercised by it but he tends to think the problem lies in all forms of bureaucracy and civil servants not being dynamic, professional or generally enough like private sector entrepreneurs feverishly making change happen like a bunch of Berkeley graduates building a start-up social enterprise in a San Francisco garage. Maybe it would be nice if Whitehall mandarins were a bit more like that. But it isn't going to happen soon. So for the time being, it looks like it has to be targets.

Of course, this government isn't entirely hostile to the idea of setting arbitrary benchmarks for performance. It is committed to bringing annual net migration down to below 100,000. When the public get really cross about something, out come the targets. That tells us something about the u-turn on operation waiting times. Clearly ministers are very nervous about the growing backlash against changes in the NHS.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder