Performance targets? You can count me out

William Hartston laments the rise of the bean-counter culture
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Indy Lifestyle Online
So the National Audit Office has revealed that the Meteorological Office has been misleading the public. That's nothing new, you may think, but this time it's nothing to do with telling us the sun is going to shine and catching us in downpours. The Met Office, we hear, has been fiddling its figures, claiming a 75 per cent customer satisfaction rating when the true figure is only 40 per cent. Its figures on forecasting efficiency and commercial income were wrong, too, and all this is liable to cost Professor Julian Hunt almost pounds 5,000 in performance-related pay.

The concept of performance targets has been with us ever since the Emperor Franz Josef of Austro-Hungary told Mozart that one of his compositions had "too many notes", but the insidious growth of "management by numbers" has taken off only in the past 25 years. It started with the initiative- stifling theories of "management by objectives", then moved on to "total quality management", with slogans such as "3.8 mistakes per million error opportunities", and it has all culminated in the current fad of "performance- related pay".

Performance targets, however, must be quantifiable for it all to work, and many aspects of genuine efficiency are no more easily reduced to figures than the quality of a piece of music relates to the number of its notes. Which is why league tables for schools are based on exam results, police constables strive to fulfil their arrest quotas and hospitals count their dead.

Stalin had a similar system, with his demanding Five-Year Plans, for almost every sector of economic life in the old Soviet Union. Only he didn't offer performance-related bonuses; he just shot anyone who didn't achieve the targets. His technique, while somewhat brutal, was academically as justifiable as its namby-pamby modern Western imitations. As any behavioural psychologist will confirm, strong negative reinforcement (shooting anyone who underperforms) is at least as effective a conditioning tool as mild positive reinforcement (performance-related bonuses).

Why don't we set targets for the target-setters? Should they not be encouraged to set more demanding targets that will both ensure better service and cut down on costly bonuses? More notes, my dear Mozart!

The trouble is, once you set targets and offer financial incentives, you influence the behaviour of everyone involved. Schools select brighter pupils, minor miscreants are arrested and hospitals become reluctant to treat anyone who might adversely affect their performance figures - anyone with a life-threatening disease, for example. And the Met Office says it's a beautiful sunny day today and none of those people standing out in the rain has complained to us about it.

Look, it's been a lovely October and the past 12 months have been the warmest on record, according to the Met Office. What more can we ask of Professor Hunt? Give the man his bonus, I say. Unless, of course, the Met Office is fibbing again. Must stop now. That's my 500-word target achieved.

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