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Is it time to trash the targets?

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

Cast your mind back and imagine if you will that you are learning to drive for the first time. You turn up for your driving lesson and your instructor starts to chat with you about the controls on the dashboard of the car, they explain the need to use and watch the speedometer to ensure you drive within the legal speed limit, they then explain about the need to keep an eye on the fuel gauge and to monitor the engine temperature, and of course they tell you about the use of the clutch the brakes and the accelerator. As the conversation unfolds it becomes clear to your instructor that you have an excellent grasp of the controls and so the instructor is confident letting you take your place behind the wheel.

You start the engine, you engage first gear and slowly and perfectly you release the clutch and drive off; but then within seconds your instructor is wrestling the control of the car from you and screaming at you to watch where you are going, because instead of looking at the road ahead and the conditions around you, you have never lifted your eyes from the dashboard and you are now cruising through a school playing field. Although you have a perfect fix on what the car is doing, how fast it is going, what the temperature is, how much fuel you have and what gear you are in, you have no idea in which direction you are going. Welcome to the world of the Public Sector; as long as you keep your eyes on the dashboard and make sure that the numbers are correct then you will be rewarded and you need never look through the windscreen at the real world.

This seemingly surreal situation is made possible because there are few if any penalties for getting things wrong (crashing) and there are no rewards for doing anything more than what you are being paid to do. Within large areas of what was once genuinely well intentioned activity, many Public Sector organisations have forgotten the “why” of what they are doing. The “why” of what we do is the key bit of the jigsaw for those of us that want to get our teeth into a meaningful task when we get out of bed in the morning. But in the seemingly endless chase to get the right boxes ticked, to prove that the outputs exist, to exceed last years’ figures, to meet the needs of the fund-holders, who in-turn were responsible for having set the targets that must be achieved, it becomes easy to see why the original reasons for getting up in the morning and doing a great job have been lost to much of the Public Sector.

This has some significant and very unfortunate side effects, it means that within the organisations that deliver Publicly Funded services, it becomes evident that it is those who quickly learn to “play the game” that rise most quickly to the top and this in-turn sends out the wrong signals to everyone else within the organisation about what they must do to achieve success in the Public Sector.

It is a stark choice, you can stare at the dashboard, play the game and rise up the ladder or take account of your surroundings and be side-lined; what would you do?

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