The Perfect Target

Okay, so those of you who have read my blogs will be familiar with my views on numerical targets in policing – in short I argue that they should all be abolished, without exception. This is because they generate perverse incentives and behaviours, drive waste into the system, skew operational activity, encourage the practice of ‘gaming’, and result in a less efficient service to the public.

But let’s put all these terrible consequences to one side for a moment, and look at numerical targets from a different perspective…

Being an optimist, I don’t actually believe that those who advocate or impose targets are necessarily bad people. Command and control through targets has been the norm for years, and at first glance some targets may even seem appropriate. Politicians and public service managers install them in the hope of improving performance, increasing efficiency and accountability, reducing costs, and so on. Let’s face it – it would be a bold move for such a person to genuinely discard management through targets if it was all they had ever known and trusted in. It could be quite an uncomfortable Epiphany for some.

So, for the purposes of this experiment, let’s explore the possibility that it could be feasible to set a target that is appropriate within a public services setting, and which comes with a warranty never to cause any of the horrors described above. A target that can only do good. A target that is absolutely proper, and completely defensible against any statistical or scientific argument; the perfect target.

Right, how do we set it?

I suppose the first logical step is to choose an area that is considered to be important enough to measure. This makes sense to me (genuinely), as I believe that we need appropriate indicators which feed into a proportionate performance measurement system. After all, if we don’t measure anything, we don’t know how we are doing, but worse still, we will miss important changes in the data which act as a signal (see my blog ‘Stay Calm and Don’t Knee Jerk’ for more on this, and Statistical Process Control charts in general).

The other important ingredient in effective performance measurement and operational deployment is a set of clearly defined priorities. So, for the purposes of illustration, a sensible and measurable policing priority could be to strive to reduce crime. No one is going to argue that the police shouldn’t try to reduce crime or arrest criminals, after all. (I’m keeping it simple here for the sake of the next bit – I appreciate external factors such as social deprivation, substance abuse, economic drivers, and other determinants affect crime rates, and it would be arrogant to suggest that crime reduction is totally within the gift of the police to control).

So now we have a clearly defined and measurable objective against which to set a target and measure subsequent performance. Let’s give it a try using widely-adopted techniques.

Crime rate chart

This chart represents the crime rate over a period of twelve months (or it could be twelve weeks, twelve years etc – it doesn’t matter). The actual figures that would normally appear on the vertical axis aren’t important, but for this demonstration let’s assume that the mid-point (horizontal blue line) is 1,000 crimes. The variation in the data ranges from 850 crimes (points 4 and 9 on the horizontal axis) to 1,100 crimes (point 2 on the horizontal axis).

For what it’s worth, the chart displays a good degree of control, with limited variation, suggesting that the system is stable and setting a target won’t actually affect the data. But that shouldn’t stop us trying. Here are some common methods of setting targets:

Method 1 is the tried-and-tested “add or subtract a few percent from last year’s figure”.

Method 2 is called “let’s use last year’s figure as a benchmark”.

Method 3 is simply a variant of Methods 1 or 2, which is to choose any of the data points (or just pick a number out of the air) and designate that figure as the target.

In the example of the crime rate chart above, this would mean that the crime rate at point 12 could be interpreted completely differently depending how the target had been set:

1. If the target was to reduce crime by 5% compared to this time last year (point 1 on the chart), then it was right on target, coming in at 950 crimes (point 12).

2. If the target was set using point 2 on the chart (1,100 crimes) then we see a huge reduction of 150 crimes at point 12 (almost 14% reduction). Well done!

3. If the target was set using point 9 (850 crimes) then it’s bad luck for you, as crime at point 12 has gone up 11.8% compared to this point.

The fact is that as the systemic variation in this chart is already stable and within the limits (horizontal red lines), setting a target within these limits will have no effect. (Other than to cause the type of unpalatable consequences mentioned briefly at the beginning of the article, and I did say I wasn’t going to go there, sorry). The reason it will have no effect is because the normal variation will be unaffected, meaning sometimes the target will be met and sometimes it won’t.

If a target is set above the upper limit it will be unattainable, as it is outside of the capabilities of the system. If it is set below the lower limit, there is no incentive to maintain current output and there is a risk that performance will deteriorate to meet the target.

So, where (and how) can you scientifically set the target?

The problem with all of these approaches is that they are entirely arbitrary. Each of the data points is subject of normal variation, so to designate one of them as a target is exactly the same as saying ‘that figure is normal and should be aspired towards’. Why?

How can it be ‘normal’, immune from natural variation or external influences? Why is it ‘normal’ compared to the week before, or six months previous? How can it be set in stone as the benchmark, or more bizarrely, be amended by a couple of percent in one direction or the other to generate a target? Where do these percentage adjustments come from? How are they calculated? Even if a comparison is made against a long-term average, guess what – about half of the time the figure will be above average, and about half of the time it will be below the average! Target-driven performance management operates in a binary world of either ‘everything is doing just great’, or ‘things are getting worse’. There is no other position. Reality is not like that.

Even if you want to try and set a numerical target for all the right reasons, it just doesn’t make sense. Listen out for hollow proclamations of success that begin with statements such as “…compared with this time last year…” or “…the target for ‘X’ has been exceeded in 95% of cases…” etc. (This latter example is even more extreme as it is a target on a target! 95% of what?) Credible? You decide.

Another major problem with attempting to set numerical targets is that (as Deming pointed out) the system itself is responsible for around 94% of performance. Setting a target does not affect the system, as the system does not understand targets. Simply exhorting the workers to work harder or to try and achieve an aspirational numerical goal does not work. Even if it did, this tactic could only ever affect 6% of performance. Why would an organisation put so much effort into an area of such minimal leverage, when there is that big 94% just waiting, begging to be improved so that it can fulfil its potential?

Furthermore, to base targets on the current output of the system is to admit defeat. It is like accepting that we can’t do any better; that the system must be at capacity. The fact is that the system is capable of a lot more but is clogged up with the wrong stuff.

The failure to understand that all public sector numerical targets are a) completely arbitrary and b) scientifically impossible to establish in the first place, is the first mistake of those who promote their application. You wouldn’t set a target for the amount of hours the sun shines in a day would you? Why not – what’s the difference?

The second mistake is to react to whether normal statistical variation meets these targets or not, as it is exactly the same as reacting to something that isn’t there. The worst case scenario is the emergence of those hideous consequences I said I wouldn’t talk about; the best case scenario is that you just waste your time and effort, cause valuable resources to be diverted from elsewhere, and have absolutely no impact on what you are trying to achieve.

As the greatest opportunity for performance improvement lies within the system, this is where effort should be focused. The first step is to reduce waste. Waste is the activity within a system that does not provide value to the service user, such as unnecessary internal reporting requirements, or time spent reworking what wasn’t done properly in the first place. If waste can be reduced (or ideally, eliminated), this generates capacity that results in a more effective system and improved service delivery. These improvements outstrip anything that even the most ambitious numerical target could aspire to reach.

I argue that the only goal worth striving for is 100%, all of the time. Surely this can be the only perfect target. Realistically, we are never going to eliminate all crime or catch 100% of car thieves for a variety of reasons, but that should not stop us aiming to reach far beyond the artificial constraints of the arbitrary numerical targets we are subject to. ‘Aim for the stars and you might hit the moon’, as they say. A numerical detection target of 10% is like aiming for the top of a bungalow.

Finally, aside from the rights and wrongs, whys and wherefores of numerical policing targets, if anyone out there can present a sound, statistically robust, scientifically rigorous theory for determining them in the first place, give me a shout. I contend that it is impossible.

About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I dislike numerical targets and unnecessary bureaucracy.
This entry was posted in Systems thinking and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Perfect Target

  1. A Wilson says:

    If there are no targets, what incentive is there for all police officers to do their jobs well? There are clearly many officers like you who obviously care deeply about their roles but you must admit that as in any profession there are those who are not so committed.

    For example, I was a victim of a hit and run in a car park in the West Midlands Police area where police were provided with a photograph of the offending vehicle, number plate, description of the driver and details of the premises (where CCTV was present), yet they failed to do anything for around 6 months, at which point a solitary letter was received stating that no action would be taken as they were “unable to identify vehicle/driver”.

    So, why wasn’t the car park contacted for their CCTV records? I had to do this on my own initiative after I became exasperated at the lack of progress, by which time the CCTV tapes had apparently already been recorded over. Car park owners said they had received no contact from police and had they known sooner that there was something of interest they would have retained the tapes. Crucial evidence was lost.

    Yet, the number plate, when entered into DVLA’s website, indicated that it did indeed match the vehicle make, model and colour. So, what has happened to the hit and run driver and vehicle? He was content to be abusive towards me and drive off at very high speed in a multi-storey car park having damaged property, so why would he bother to stop if, heaven forbid, he hit a pedestrian or child?

    A few months later a vehicle was being driven dangerously on a motorway (again in the West Midlands Police area) and almost took out several vehicles (their respective quick reactions prevented a multiple vehicle collision).

    Again, the number plate, vehicle make, model and a description of the driver were recorded and reported to West Midlands Police.

    This time, a phone call was received from an officer the very next day (credit due for the quick response). Unfortunately, it appeared that the number plate did not come back to any vehicle. The number was reconfirmed with the officer several times verbally (phonetically – for avoidance of doubt) but the officer again claimed it did not match any vehicle.

    Yet, subsequent enquiries via DVLA indicated that the number plate was in fact linked to a vehicle and furthermore, this vehicle was of the same make, model and colour as reported to West Midlands Police.

    For the second time, West Midlands Police claimed a vehicle number plate did not come back to a vehicle when DVLA begged to differ.

    To go back to the topic of this blog, targets are important in any sector, otherwise how can performance (good or bad) be measured?

    Take road traffic deaths – bizarrely the government has set a target which they deem to be an acceptable level of road deaths. I find this utterly incredulous. We should aim for 0 deaths on the UK’s roads. Not an x% reduction in year y whereby hitting/beating the target deaths is cause for celebration.

    How can individuals be graded for performance, if they know that going the extra mile or putting extra effort into a given task is not going to be rewarded or recognised? There will always be a proportion of staff (the minority) who will take the easy option if it is made available. It would be interesting to know how Insp Guilfoyle would keep tabs on individuals’ progress and grade performance of individual officers if all numerical targets in policing should be abolished.

    • Thanks for your comments. Firstly, I am sorry that you appear to have had bad experiences with West Midlands Police. If you want to contact me on I will do my best to assist with this specific issue. The fact is however that the situation you describe seems to do with the thoroughness and competence of the response to your report, and has nothing to do with targets.

      The police officers that do their jobs well are not incentivised by targets. You are right that performance should be measured and I totally agree with this, but there is a distinction between performance measurement and targets. My argument is that you do not need targets to measure performance; indeed they have an adverse effect on performance. I go into more detail on my other article ‘Crime In Progress – The Impact of Targets on Police Service Delivery’. That longer piece explains the importance of proportionate performance measurement and the risks surrounding targets in more detail than this short blog, which is directed specifically at the problems of trying to set targets in the first place.

      Finally, regarding your point on the target for reducing road deaths you seem to be coming from exactly the same position as me and I totally agree with you.


      Simon Guilfoyle

  2. Alan Clark says:

    The assumption that targets are necessary for anyone, not only police officers, to do a good job is one of the worst and most pervasive myths in our society today. It involves a broad generalisation about the way people approach the world of work, so called Theory X, that people need to driven, incentivised, carrot and stick, etc, etc.
    Research many, many years ago showed that MOST people want to do a good job – given the chance. Most people like to take a pride in their work, as I say, given the chance. The best “reward” is recognition (when merited, the most effective words in a manager’s lexicon being “Thank you you did a good job.”) and advancement to more interesting and possibly more challenging work.
    Targets are necessary for the elements of a system, such as a Police Force, only insofar as they facilitate all of the parts working together to achieve the aim of that overall system.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s