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  1. Politics
31 January 2000

Hit the target and miss the point

The government has set targets not just for NHS waiting-lists, but for quality of waitress service.

By Nick Cohen

A decadent frivolity in the national discourse allows flushed scribblers to compare the difficulties facing our quiet, slightly pessimistic country to the horrors of the Europe of the dictators. In the Conservative press, the European Commission is the “Fourth Reich”, as if there was no difference between the slaughter of tens of millions and a currency union. From the left and the right, Blairists are called “Stalinists”, as if there were no difference between systemic lying or terrifying dissidents into false confessions and the tactics of Alastair Campbell.

Sorry? Ah yes, Lord Winston, I take your point. Perhaps we should join the hyperbolic pack in the hunt for historical parallels, and note it is not only the bullying and mendacity of the Downing Street press office and the dispiriting regimentation of the delegates to the Supreme Soviet of the British Union in Westminster that have the faint whiff of the commissar about them. The Blair administration produces more targets than an apparatchik with Beria’s gun to his head.

According to its 1998/99 annual report, the government has “set over 600 testing performance and efficiency targets to transform the way the public services operate”. They seemed more than enough to be going on with, but the Liberal Democrats suspected the figure was on the low side. Daily, they heard the government name new peaks to conquer. They put down parliamentary questions asking each department to list its targets. To date, they have found 500 – and that’s from the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions alone. When they announce the results of the complete survey of all ministries at the end of February, they expect the total to have reached 5,000.

There are noble targets so beyond the scope of the best-intentioned British government that they can make the sensitive weep – “we will halve world poverty by 2015” (the Department for International Development). There are noble targets well within the scope of the best-intentioned British government, but impossible for one too frightened to redistribute wealth – “we will eliminate child poverty in 20 years” (Tony Blair).

There are targets that are little better than propaganda to shepherd the public into believing that the unwinnable war on drugs can be won by zero tolerance of every humane and practical policy – “we will reduce the proportion of people reporting the use of heroin and cocaine by 25 per cent by 2005 and 50 per cent by 2008” (the Cabinet Office). There aren’t targets on the flossing of the nation’s teeth, but there soon will be – “being able to eat, speak and socialise without pain improves the quality of life . . . we are producing a strategy to improve dental health” (John Denham, health minister, September 1999.) And there is a target day when the government will sincerely thank you for not smoking – “we will cut the number of people smoking by 1.5 million by 2010” (Department of Health).

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There are warm-hearted targets – “we will widen access to tourism for the 40 per cent of people who do not take a holiday” (Department for Culture, Media and Sport). There are tough targets – “we will reduce levels of truancy by one-third by the year 2002” (the Cabinet Office). There are staggeringly banal targets to assess the servility of waitresses at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Whitehall – “the overall score for quality of service by catering staff will be at least 88 per cent” (Next Steps Agencies annual report). There are targets whose touchy-feely ambition borders on the deranged – “Prescott Sets Targets for Improving Quality of Life for Everyone” (Department of Environment press release, 21 January 1999). On this, the Deputy Prime Minister wisely covered his back later by saying that “because the targets are demanding, they are not always achieved”.

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There are cunning targets that combine an illusion of precision with latitude for bureaucratic manoeuvre – we will “increase the favourability of media coverage by 43.9-50 per cent” (UK Atomic Energy Authority). “It’s very rigorous,” a spokesman assured me when I asked why 43.9 rather than a round 44 per cent, and why the six-point margin of error. “A company in Surrey measures our favourability and unfavourability ratings scientifically. A good report in the Sun, for example, is worth a 100 times more than a good report in the Plymouth Packet.”

There are so many targets that there are targets of targets to hit – “we will achieve 80 per cent of the target indicators to measure the effectiveness of the Agency’s expenditure” (the Highways Agency). There are so many targets that the government doesn’t know where to find one target in the maze of other targets. “Details of any targets agreed with local government are not held centrally,” confessed the local government minister, Beverley Hughes. There are so many targets that Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat MP, says that new Labour’s target-setting is “spinning out of control”.

This is is a wounding accusation, because the point of targets is to control. They allow politicians to direct the bureaucracy. They will soon allow the voters to judge whether the government is delivering. Instead of paying taxes into the black hole of the Treasury, voters will be able to hold the government to account and know specifically whether it has succeeded or failed. There will be clarity of purpose from above and a clear view from below.

Yet this apparently admirable practice has its discontents. Millions lost their jobs in the early 1980s so that Margaret Thatcher and the monetarists could hit their meaningless target for the M3 measure of money supply. By contrast, in Reflections on a Ravaged Century, his latest study of the Soviet Union, Robert Conquest tells the tragedy of a targeter – one A N Larionov, first secretary of the Ryazan province. He promised Krushchev he would double meat production in a year. He did so by slaughtering all the cows and breeding-bulls. The planners did not ask how he had done it; all that mattered was that he’d met the target and deserved the Order of Lenin and elevation to the rank of Hero of Socialist Labour. It was only when someone noticed there wasn’t a cow left in Ryazan that he was exposed and committed suicide.

The British bureaucracy is stuffed with the heirs of Larionov. The pressure on schools to reach their examination targets by expelling or ignoring their weakest pupils is notorious; as is the petty centralisation that targeting brings. (David Blunkett will soon force every class in the country to embrace new Labour’s gormless obsession with football by ordering all pupils to compile fantasy league teams.)

But, however appealing the Stalinist analogy may be to journalists and the disgruntled, it breaks down because the deformities that ministers produce do not come from great crimes, but from the most timid of micro-promises.

After 18 years of right-wing rule, it might be thought that the Labour Party would have a higher ambition for the NHS than to reduce waiting-lists by 100,000. But the effort spent in trying to achieve this most modest of tasks has led to sufferers of cancer and heart disease being kept in sickness, while the waiting-list for bunions is cleared. Labour made it impossible to treat both life-threatening diseases and painful ailments because, frightened of taxing the prosperous, it ordered a squeeze on public spending that was fiercer than anything the Tories dared contemplate.

In the present ultra-Thatcherite climate, there is no room for the errors that adult politicians accept as a regrettable facts of life. At the 1997 election, Labour was mocked for promising that it would put all five, six and seven year olds in classes of under 30. Surely, asked the detractors, the electorate wasn’t foolish enough to believe that seven year olds didn’t grow up? Yet unforeseen difficulties have beset the attainment of this paltry improvement. In opposition, Labour estimated it would cost £60 million; in fact, meeting the target will cost £627 million. The standstill in public spending in the first two years of the Blair government ensured that the consequences of the miscalculation for older children has been disastrous. Spending per pupil in secondary schools is at its lowest level for 20 years and the class sizes of teenagers have ballooned.

No one voted Labour solely because of the precise length NHS waiting-lists or because their only care was the exact number of prepubescent children in a class. They voted Labour to get decent state schools and hospitals that weren’t heaving slums. By the time of the next election, I’m sure the health and education objectives will have been met – failure is unthinkable. Blair will go to the electorate and proclaim sincerely: “I’ve hit my targets and missed the point.”

The writer is an “Observer” columnist