So many targets, so few bull's-eyes

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This is a government obsessed by setting itself targets. There are hundreds of them in every conceivable policy area. When ministers are not tormenting themselves about how they are going to meet targets, they are agonising over how to set them. Ministers and their officials cannot agree on what basis they should revise targets for the reduction of traffic, having failed to meet Mr Prescott's original target. Nor has the drugs tsar found a way of gauging whether he is making progress in meeting his key targets in the fight against drugs.

This is a government obsessed by setting itself targets. There are hundreds of them in every conceivable policy area. When ministers are not tormenting themselves about how they are going to meet targets, they are agonising over how to set them. Ministers and their officials cannot agree on what basis they should revise targets for the reduction of traffic, having failed to meet Mr Prescott's original target. Nor has the drugs tsar found a way of gauging whether he is making progress in meeting his key targets in the fight against drugs.

Targets are easy to mock and easy to abuse. It is a scandal, for example, that train companies were allowed to increase the length of journey times and then claim to have met their punctuality targets. As Raymond Whitaker reports on page 21, targets are sometimes rigged to be easily attainable. Alternatively, they can be hugely over-ambitious, with disastrous consequences. The high attendance target for the Millennium Dome was a cause of its undoing. The moment it became clear that the target was not going to be met, the Dome became a "failure". More widely, targets can be a clumsy device imposed by the centre, insensitive to local needs and problems.

This does not mean that the Government should give up its obsession with them altogether. In a sluggish public sector in which change happens slowly, they can help to inject a sense of momentum. With a large amount of taxpayers' money finally being invested in the public services, targets provide one way of assessing value for money. Rightly, ministers are determined to prove that higher public spending makes a difference. But in order for targets to work they must be used by the Government with greater discrimination and precision. That should be the Government's new target: fewer of them, openly deployed.

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