Don't try to control everything

Matthew Taylor argues that ministers must encourage the public sector to take risks

Welcome to the evaluative state. Shortly before Christmas a white paper set out targets that must be met, both by government departments and by initiatives (such as crime prevention and family support) that cut across departments. Some of these Public Service Agreements (PSAs) are familiar: the manifesto pledges on class sizes and NHS waiting lists, for example. Others are more obscure. These range from the detailed and measurable - the Department for Culture is to ensure that 75 per cent of libraries are linked to the Internet - to the broad and intangible - the first Foreign Office objective is to "build a modern Nato, adapted to the needs of the new millennium".

Alongside them we have the growth in evaluative agencies: the best known is probably Ofsted, which enforces standards in education. Among the new agencies are the Commission for Health Improvement and the Best Value Inspectorates in the Audit Commission. Only last month Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, announced Quest, an agency that will measure value for money in the arts (ministers wisely decided against Ofart).

All this is certainly better than what came before. As Tony Blair wrote in the introduction to the white paper: "Too often in the past, governments have only made commitments for what they put into public services - money, manpower and policies - not what the public will get out in return." The Conservatives did not fundamentally challenge this "input culture"; instead, they privatised, introduced quasi-markets and steadily eroded local control. In contrast to the Tories' anti-state rhetoric, Labour aims to strengthen support for public expenditure by providing citizens with clear evidence of where their money is going and what it is achieving.

But accepting the idea of target-setting is one thing; setting the right targets is another. Doctors have argued that the numbers on waiting lists - which Labour has pledged to reduce - are less important for individual patients than waiting times. The waiting-list target does not tell us whether those in greatest need are being seen first. Again, the target for 50 per cent of pupils to achieve five A-C grades in GCSE gives schools every incentive to concentrate on those of middling ability (so that they get five rather than four A-C grades) but much less reason to bother with those at the lower levels of attainment. The target thus becomes a measure not of school performance but of the head's ability to direct resources ruthlessly to a particular group. Education ministers have now recognised this, and included a target to reduce the number of pupils leaving with no qualifications. But the reality of league tables means that schools will to continue to focus on improving the performance of the middle and top bands.

It is a characteristic of management by target that more and more measures have to be developed to correct the perverse incentives created by earlier ones, rather as the judge in the film What's Up Doc? took so many pills to deal with the side-effects of others that he forgot what was originally wrong with him.

Further, ministers and civil servants, knowing that they will be judged by outcomes, start to take stronger and stronger powers to shape those outcomes. They move further and further "upstream", trying to control the process by which targets are reached. In primary schools, for example, ministers have set targets for literacy and numeracy; now they are dictating time, content and method for these subjects.

And therein lie the dangers. If ministers try to extend their control to process as well as outcome, the scope for public managers, local councillors and public service volunteers to use their own initiative will become ever more circumscribed. Creative minds are hardly going to be attracted to public service by the financial rewards. People need to feel they can lead, respond to local circumstances and make a difference. Yet school governors, for example, find themselves acting as managerial assistants to head teachers, dealing with an ever-growing tide of regulations from the Department for Education and Employment or the town hall.

Labour's commitment to civic engagement and the renewal of communities is an important part of its new ideology. It is an area where the values of traditional liberalism and new social democracy are complementary. But by exerting too much control from the centre Labour risks invalidating its commitment to active citizenship.

What is the answer? In championing the PSAs, Blair and Gordon Brown often speak of "money for modernisation". To this should be added the idea of "freedom for modernisation". As public services deliver on their targets, the reward should be not only more resources but also more autonomy over how targets are pursued. Ministers have already proposed "beacon councils", to be given special freedoms as a reward for meeting best-value targets, and even Ofsted - supposedly the big bad wolf of the evaluative state - is developing "light-touch" inspections for demonstrably successful schools.

Such ideas should be extended. But the government will have to do two things it sometimes finds difficult. First, it will have to resist the temptation to exert ever more detailed central control. The muted response to the idea of targets for the patients' charter being set locally is not a good sign. Second, as a thousand flowers bloom in the public sector, the government will have to be willing to take a hit when local innovators get it wrong or when their methods are viewed as too unconventional by Daily Mail standards.

In its recent white paper on competitiveness, the government argued that a greater tolerance of business failure was the price for encouraging risk-taking. It would be good to see a similar standard applied to the public sector. Who knows: it may convince people that ministers are not control freaks.

Matthew Taylor is the new director of the Institute for Public Policy Research