Outcomes: if you work in any aspect of social policy, you can’t escape them. Every action you do is measured by the ‘outcomes’ that it produces.
In theory, this is a good thing. After all, the work we do is all about improving people’s lives. So, shouldn’t we be judged by the outcomes of our actions?
In practice, it’s a terrible idea. In reality, measuring people or teams or organisations by outcomes has nothing to do with the impact of our work on the people we’re trying to help. That’s because “outcomes” measures don’t measure the genuine impact of our work. Instead, they measure what can be measured. Which isn’t the same thing.
As a result, we end up being measured by our ability to produce data about meaningless targets. Which means that good people, doing their jobs well, end up having to having to tell lies in order to prove that they’re doing a good job. This lying takes all sorts of different forms.
Some of them are subtle forms of lying: teachers who teach to the test, or who only enter pupils into exams who they know are going to pass, employment support which only helps those likely to get a job, and ‘parks’ those most in need. Or hospitals which reclassify trolleys as beds, or which keep people waiting in ambulances on the hospital’s doorstep until they know they can be seen within the target time. Some of the lying is less subtle – people just make up results. In the literature, this is known as ‘gaming the system’.
If you’re having to do this, we want you to know that you’re not alone. Every time this kind of Outcomes-Based Performance Management is put into practice, it results in people having to lie. We know this, because that’s what research studies about this type of practice tell us:
“Target based performance management always creates ‘gaming’”. Not ‘sometimes’. Not ‘frequently’. Always. (source: Bevan, G. and Hood, C. (2006) “What’s measured is what matters: targets and gaming in the English public health care system”, Public Administration, 84: 3, 517–38).
We want this to stop. We want to find a better way to look at the effectiveness of social policy interventions. But the first thing we need to do is to show that the current system is broken. To do this, we need your stories. We need you to tell us about the lies that you’ve been forced to tell.
Click here to tell us the porkies that you’ve had to tell
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.