Monday, 22 December 2008

A good explanation of the impact of meaningless targets

I've been following with interest developments in the use of targets and statistics in the UK over the last few years. Blogs like David Copperfield and newspapers like The Spectator have generally given the impression that they have been an outright disaster. The link that I have posted to Copperfield is worth looking at, since he explains some of the differences between policing in the UK and Canada (having worked in the former and now working in the latter).

In fact his entire blog is worth reading. So is his book.

My worry is that Krudd has been bitten by the "targets" bug. After declaring war on everything, he'll now start setting targets for every department and agency. That will mean our public servants will be gathering even more statistics, and producing more acre-feet of reports. Are they not generating sufficient reams of data and reports now, without having to add another semi-trailer load per week?

Will not someone think of the trees? (Because no public servant can go a day without printing a long report in full colour, binding it with a plastic cover and then filing it without reading it).

Announcing targets is such a wonderful thing. Krudd announced yesterday that the state governments are going to have to hit targets as part of his war on homelessness. Instead of just giving rent money or rent vouchers to the homeless and letting them work it out themselves, an army of bureaucrats at state and federal level will now be employed to generate, manipulate, palpitate and flatulate reports, thus uselessly sucking up money that could have been used to solve the problem at hand.

They will need offices, computers, a computer system (costing millions), mobile phones, artwork, cars, meeting rooms, coffee machines, newspaper subscriptions, conferences to go to, secretaries, travel expenses, pot plants and on and on and on, with every item of overhead keeping one homeless person sleeping under a bridge with nothing but a cat for warmth. Krudd promised to only halve homelessness for $6 billion, because he knows that whilst he could solve the entire problem for that amount, the pubes will make of with 50% of the cash that the Treasury hands over.

On the bright side, it will save public servants from being homeless themselves. I guess you have to look at it that way.

The use and misuse of statistics used to produce some fascinatingly stupid management battles at work. We had a small team of people that took care of our offices in country NSW, and a much bigger team that took care of the Sydney region. We had three guys doing the country - they divided the state up between them, and looked after sites from the fringes of Sydney to the borders of Victoria, South Australia and Queensland.

As you can imagine, they travelled a bit. For a lot of their jobs, they had to be physically on site to do the work. With the city stuff, a lot could be done over the phone from a desk, so the city guys churned through a lot more work than the country guys. That's easy to do when one bloke spends 6 hours driving to a remote site to do 2 hours work, and the other spends 7 hours sitting at his desk taking calls.

The dickhead that managed one of the city teams was always going on about how effective and special one of his staff was - his favourite pet was always top of the class, averaging 40 calls a day or more. He would use that number to browbeat the rest of us in front of our boss, making himself look good in the meantime.

I'd retort that the only reason his pet got such good numbers was because they had been busted "stealing" jobs from other staff to make their numbers look good (the computer system we used allowed you to do that, if you had no scruples or morals - they were the only one who did it). Furthermore, they were dealing with the simplest jobs we had, whilst the guys out in the field got the really tough assignments. It was like comparing the squeezing of pimples with brain surgery.

Plus there was the travel time issue. You can't fix things when you're driving a car, which was part of the job.

None of that mattered to dickhead - the stats said his numbers were better, so he was doing the best job, and the country people were useless.

The funny thing is that if you went out into the field (as I did, and he never did), you quickly found that the customers loved the country guys. They thought they provided great service, they were friendly, and they knew their stuff. They didn't pass on tough problems - they worked on them until they were fixed.

On the other hand, almost everyone that had dealt with "the pet" had nothing nice to say. The pet was abrupt, dealt with problems that a child could fix and immediately dumped any job that looked like it would take more than 5 minutes to fix. The customers wanted less pets and more country boys.

But management didn't see it that way. When the management consultants came in and reviewed the numbers, the country boys were the first to go.

So when people talk about targets, I reach for my shotgun.

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