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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.