Outcomesanonymous is a new project to catalogue the reality behind targets, payment by results and outcomes based performance management approaches.
You are not alone and it’s not your fault. Many of us don’t even realise we are doing it.
Teaching to the test, declaring dead people fit for work, cherry picking people who are most likely to get a job and reclassifying trolleys as hospital beds are well-known examples of gaming the system with disastrous consequences. There are more subtle types; creating a good impression for the inspectors, embellishing results in a monitoring document or only reporting positive findings from a survey.
Tell us what you have done to meet a target, get funding or demonstrate an outcome. It might be serious or minor, outrageous or so subtle and normalised that you don’t think it is worth talking about at work. Say as much or as little as you like, use your real name or a pseudonym – it’s up to you.
By sharing your story you’re showing the world that it is not just a few bad apples. Fess up. Go on.
Gaming is an inevitable consequence of target-driven performance management. No numerical target is immune from causing dysfunctional behaviour. Absolutely none. Not one. Zippo. Zilch.
I have seen the effect of this phenomenon in policing, healthcare and education, plus there is a wealth of evidence out there that suggests my own experiences are not untypical. My article ‘On Target? Public Sector Performance Management: Recurrent Themes, Consequences and Questions’ explores the subject. Here’s the link –
I argue that the antidote lies in adopting a systems-orientated approach, with measures that are derived from purpose and the imbuement of an organisational ethos that is based on trust.
I spent 10 years of my life write down half truths in documents to feed the hierarchy in local government. I wrote neighbourhood plans, partnership strategies, the Local Area Agreement, stretch targets, community strategies, monitoring documents, council plans, Prince 2 project documents and service plans.
I told lies in themes, lies in groups, lies in pairs. Pages and pages of them. Hundreds of pages of nonsense. Strategic lies. Operational lies. Cross cutting lies. Every document I wrote was packed full of white lies. I’ve lied at every level – local lies, sub regional lies, regional lies, national lies.
Why? Because I was told it was to get the best for the local area. It was normal. The job of a partnerships and policy officer. Gathering together and presenting lies in an attractive format.
I would class these lies as strategic lies – it’s the stuff we write in documents to demonstrate that projects have contributed towards outcomes such as a ‘thriving economy’ or towards ‘healthy children’. The logic looks perfect on the page but in reality no one has a clue. Therefore, at best nonsense and at worse, lies.
Two cheats from me:
First ‘Sponge Knocking’. When trades people are sent to a repair they know will be difficult or take too long to meet the target, they slip a sponge between the door and the knocker to make it look they are knocking when really they aren’t. Then they silently push a “sorry we missed you” card through the letterbox. Contact avoided! The tradesperson can claim they knocked but no one answered. Target met, difficult work avoided.
Second, a housing repairs manager can ‘prove’ customers are satisfied by doing a postal survey. No one ever responds to a mail-out so to ensure the usual 90% target is achieved, simply count non returns as ‘satisfied’. After all, if they weren’t happy, they would let you know, wouldn’t they?
I work within Local Government and have had the misfortune to lead on a few central government inspections.
The amount of energy expended on ‘Inspection Readiness’ within the organisation for which I work is unbelievably high. I can’t even take comfort from the fact that by preparing for inspections we are directly or indirectly making a better service for our customers, we’re not. We’re simply ensuring that when the inspectors come to call, we can be confident we’ve done enough to tick the necessary boxes, or hide the ‘bad practice’ in such a way as to obtain the judgement we want.
This manifests itself in many ways. Below are but a few:
• Audits – When we get notification of an inspection, or inkling that one is imminent, many staff are deployed to ‘audit’ case files and effectively plug all of the gaps that were perfectly acceptable until we knew an inspection was coming. Does this help the customer? No. It’s simply a case of making sure we can ‘evidence’ our adherence to an inflexible list of arbitrary targets. Why have staff not kept the information up to date? Most likely because they couldn’t see what value it added. Maybe instead of feeding the IT machine, they were helping people. Just a thought.
• Briefings – All staff that may come into contact with inspectors are briefed. Those who are lucky enough to be invited to a focus group or have direct contact with an inspector get a pre-brief and post-brief before and after their allotted meeting. This is to make sure they know what they can and can’t say, that they understand the current strategies and objectives of the service, and also so that managers can ‘collect’ any information about what the inspectors did or did not like in an effort to deflect/coerce the inspectors later in the inspection. Does this help the customer? No. It’s simply a way of maintaining a common ‘story’. If it was that important for staff to know, why only force it upon them at the point of inspection. Does it make any difference to the service they offer to their customers? No, it doesn’t. The staff struggle on delivering the best customer service they can in spite of what managers tell them.
• Face to face contact with customers – All I can say is that those customers who meet up with inspectors are very carefully selected. Those who are positive. Those who had or are having a good experience. The same few that we wheel out every time and we trust to ‘give the right message’. Hardly a scientific sample when asking probably the most important question – ‘How did it feel for you?’
• Self Assessment – A self assessment is produced to show the inspectors that we are aware of those things that are working, and those that need development. This is a carefully crafted document that essentially leads the inspectors to the parts of your service you are happy for them to see.
• Data – I have yet to see a request for data from an inspector that gave any form of indication that a service was effective and/or efficient. Nor have I seen one where we actually kept all of the data in the way it was requested, resulting in much ‘creative’ manipulation. Back to the arbitrary targets.
So, as you can see, central inspection is still alive, well, manipulated and just as dysfunctional as ever.
I don’t think public sector people lie outright. Much of the time they just don’t know that what they are doing is kidding the public. They aren’t aware. It is hidden because that is the way it has always been done. They became managers because they didn’t rock the boat. You don’t become a manager in the public by refusing to do performance reports or by questioning data. Or highlighting that inspection doesn’t work (particularly if you have just become a ‘excellent-rated’ council or just passed an Ofsted inspection. Who wants to risk their bonus or have a rough performance appraisal by kicking at the system focused on compliance with standards?
I agree with the comment above. It is things like targets that drive dysfunction and ‘cheating’ into the system. Forcing people to do things that makes no sense. People just want to do a good job.
Working for a mental health service, we have to select those patients who have not got much wrong with them so that we can produce outcomes to show that they are ‘cured’ by our service. We have to ignore those with real needs as they may not get better quick enough and then we would lose the nhs contract for the service and get taken over by some rapacious private equity company who will make us do even worse things. We know this. They run our equivalent service in neighbouring boroughs.
Also the Work Programme advisers ‘pushing jobless into self-employment’ says BBC Radio 5 http://bbc.in/WGdGz6
There are a number of examples on the POSIWID blog.
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I work in performance management in local government. One example that sticks in my mind was a Highways Manager who had a problem of poor performance against an indicator which measured the number of days of temporary traffic controls on main highways (so basically where they’ve put traffic lights in because they’ve dug up the roads or are doing repairs). We were coming towards year end and the figure for that indicator was too high, so to bring it back on target the highways manager cancelled (albeit temporarily – until the new financial year) a number of scheduled road repairs. So the ‘temporary traffic controls’ indicator was brought back on target – but only because we didn’t repair the potholes in the roads! Which do you think the public would have preferred?
Ok, well it wasn’t me, but this is one of the best I have heard. A call centre was not hitting its target of handling 80% of calls in 20 seconds (itself a stupid target). Management applied some heat. So, when the call centre was quiet, the team manager got some of her team to dial in to their own call centre and hang up as soon as the call was answered. How ingenious. shame the team manager was not using that ingenuity and creativity to improve things. But it worked; results hit target and everyone was happy.
I was doing analysis in a call centre and found the volume of calls coming in was increasing. on investigation i found that the call centre manager brought non-skilled call centre staff in to answer calls and write down what customer wanted, in order to achieve their Abandoned call target. the idea being that skill staff would call customer back during quiet times. the increase in calls was customers calling back wondering what the hell was happening with their order. classic
I worked in a Jobcentre at the time that they coalition (or “Tory-led”, if you prefer) government came into power. Targets that had previously been about seeing people within a certain time of their claim being made and other customer-service related indicators were very quickly seen as not being so important as the new game in town; stopping people’s Jobseekers Allowance (JSA). Although it was never officially written down anywhere (as far as I know), advisors all seemed to be working on the basis that they should be looking to stop around 10% of JSA claimants money per week. An advisor diary was set aside specifically to deal with the people who had been considered not doing enough to look for work, and other advisors were encouraged to refer any possible cases on to this diary wherever possible. If you were referred to this advisor (“getting done for actively seeking”), your money was stopped straight away, pending a decision. If that went against you, you could appeal, which took time. All the while, no money.
Undoubtedly some people weren’t actively looking for work, and therefore it was perhaps right to penalise them. Others thought they were, but fell foul of the “crackdown”. Others, perhaps for language reasons, clearly hadn’t understood what it was they had to do to avoid getting penalised. Crisis loan claims increased dramatically. I imagine it was a very good time for loan sharks.
There are targets, and then there are targets, and if we are to have them at all we should be careful which ones we wish for.
I just found this alarming blogpost about the perils of polio vaccination in Nigeria. I thought it would appeal to this group!
I particularly like this paragraph:
“Mothers are given cards to show their child has been immunised, said Dr Olayemi, but some lose them and in other cases, the vaccinators refuse to accept them. It may not help that they are paid according to how many children they reach.”
I just found another interesting one
The Culture within the CPS exposed
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The Wire’s Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski talks about ‘juking the stats’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ogxZxu6cjM
When working for an outsourced IT firm running a local gov IT contract, we would regularly doctor the server and network stats to keep within the SLA and avoid paying (hefty) service credits. It was simply not an option to write a report showing the truth and lose £10k that month. Sometimes this went up to £300k. If we could find a reason why this was not our fault, it was included. Other lines of server downtime were simply deleted. Either we didn’t know what they were or why they were down (incompetence) or we knew, but the client hadn’t noticed so we just removed the line (fraud?). They were incapable of checking on their side so we got away with it.
Every procurement process I’ve ever participated in (going on 10 times for different things for different local councils) has been a sham. The project runs to such tight deadlines that all this ‘governance and scrutiny’ never happens. There is simply NO OPTION to stall things or go hey, this is wrong – there is no time to ask questions. You go through the process and get it done. It goes to some board and scrutiny who then sign it off – every time – because they aren’t given the detail of everything that is awful and bad about the project. All they see is a big red deadline and are told “omg you have to approve this or we have no x service from next month!!!111” and lo – it gets waved through. Then the consultants – PWC and their ilk – get a nice fat fee for setting it up using excel templates from the last council they did this for.