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1 November 2011What gets measured...

Martin Ledigo

by Martin Ledigo

..gets done, or so say they said during the heyday of New Labour public sector target setting. In Metafore we have changed this to "What gets measured gets manipulated".

Look at school league tables. They were intended to drive up school performance and I am sure they have helped considerably by focusing the attention of teachers and making performance information more widely available, notably to parents. But we heard stories of pupils being forced out of schools or not being allowed to sit exams as they were deemed likely to fail which would then impact on the school's position in the league tables. Not really what we want school to do.

This morning I heard on the news about the increasing prevalence of the police to encourage criminals to confess to other crimes (that often heard phrase "the defendant asked for 20 other cases to be taken into consideration"). These then count as solved cases and so the detection rate increases which contributes to the overall view of police success in solving crimes. They said that in Yorkshire, 1 in 6 times are "solved" in this way. They also mentioned that there had been 3 police internal investigations into this practice – the first two of which resulted in disciplinary action against officers and the third is underway.

This is not meant as a criticism of the police or the Labour Government or head teachers – it is more a comment on human behaviour. Targets are helpful but only as part of a balanced view of organisation performance. In a former career Matthew and I ran a consulting business where we decided not to use the most widely used measure in consulting – namely staff utilisation. This is the percentage of time that a person spends on work that can be charged to a client. It is not that we were not interested in people being highly utilised and we knew that unless for the whole team it was above 70% then we were not profitable. But when you measure and publish this for individuals it drives all kinds of dysfunctional behaviour. Notably people don't share work out to the extent that consultants do work that they are less qualified to do when a more qualified person is "on the bench".

Targets can be very helpful but be aware of the law of unintended consequences!

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