I recently came across this blog post by Bernard Rix, the Acting Chief Executive of the Confederation of Police and Crime Commissioners (CoPaCC). Bernard has been thematically analysing the draft Police and Crime Plans that Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are producing for the year ahead. The particular post that caught my eye was, as you might guess, about PCC’s different approaches to performance management.
What struck me was the wide spectrum of approaches proposed within the various plans. Some were particularly encouraging – I have copied a couple of quotes below:
- “Policing is complex, and the aim must be to do the right thing for victims and communities without slavishly adhering to indicators and targets where there is a danger of chasing a target and missing the point.”
- “I will not be setting any specific numerical targets in this Plan. I believe that a focus on targets can distort the system and, due to possible ‘gaming’, lead to unintended consequences that can deflect from attaining the desired outcomes.”
I could have written that second one myself. Nice choice of words!
This is great to see and I sincerely hope that these bold intentions translate into meaningful performance frameworks that keep policing activity focused on doing the right thing, whilst ensuring transparency and accountability.
However, at the other end of the scale, some plans are littered with numerical targets and language that is synonymous with the type of performance management that police and public alike had desperately hoped was on the way out. One quote reads:
- “I have set clear ‘hard’ targets and I will hold the Chief Constable to account for reaching these targets in the coming year. I have also included, where appropriate, additional ‘stretch’ targets to indicate the aspirational goals through Year 1 of this plan and into Year 2.”
Now, if you are a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that I often thrown in a bit of mischievous humour from time-to-time, poking fun at daft performance indicators such as numerical targets for cleaning up dog poo and the like. This time I’m going to tone down the trademark jocularity because I want to get a serious message across, before it’s too late.
So… If you are a PCC and you intend to include numerical targets in your Police and Crime Plan, I don’t doubt it’s being done with the best of intentions, but please consider the following points:
Have a think about this: If your plan includes targets such as ‘reduce robberies by 10%’, ‘attain 85% public satisfaction’, or ‘no more than 300 road deaths’, firstly, ask yourself where these numbers came from. Chances are, the ‘science’ involved boils down to little more than the classic ‘finger in the air method’. This is because all numerical targets are arbitrary.
It doesn’t stop people trying though. ‘Methods’ range from the pseudo-scientific, to the extremely simplistic, as well as the outright unfathomable; at the more ‘sophisticated’ end of the scale they include aggregating multiple data sources, attempting to predict trajectories and even applying algorithms; conversely, the good old ‘let’s look at last year’s / someone else’s figures, then add or subtract a few percent’ method is also very popular. Whichever method is used to conjure up the numbers, the final numerical target will always be entirely whimsical.
Furthermore, these types of targets inadvertently send out the message that a 10% reduction is the best that can be hoped for, that the plan aims for 15% of the public to be dissatisfied, and that ‘only’ 299 road deaths are okay. If that sounds silly, it’s because it is silly. Whilst it is possible to estimate the range within which data will continue to fall if the operating conditions of a system remain unchanged, it is not possible to set a precise numerical target within that data range. For all the effort and expertise of stock market traders, I know of none who can predict the exact point that the FTSE index will close at tomorrow.
Targets Don’t Actually Work
Targets are implemented on the assumption that they ‘motivate’ people and thereby improve performance. This is fundamentally misguided for a couple of main reasons. First of all, it ignores the reality of why people strive to do a good job – i.e. intrinsic motivation. (For more on this, read my canny tale of talking deer). Secondly, and from a purely practical perspective, targets (along with many traditional performance management methods) focus on the individual, rather than the system. This is a deadly error, as the system is where the overwhelming majority of performance derives from. I reproduce a pie chart from a previous blog post to illustrate this:
Let me be clear that targets cannot and do not work on the system – therefore, even if they were a non-arbitrary, side effect-free, perfect tool for improving individuals’ performance, managers who rely upon them are concentrating on squeezing a fraction of a percent out of the thin slice of the pie, whilst missing the huge opportunities for positively influencing the way in which the overall system operates. Why would anyone do this???!
The chart below represents the performance of one aspect of a system. It could be response times, the public satisfaction rate, recorded crime, or anything else you choose.
The pattern of data indicate that the process is stable (i.e. no data points fall outside of the control limits depicted by dotted lines). This means that if this process continues to operate under the prevailing system conditions, the data will continue to fall within these boundaries ad infinitum. Now, if you felt that public satisfaction rates were too low (or crime was too high or whatever), a common reaction is to set a target for improvement. Let’s see what happens when this occurs:
Here, the target is represented by the red ‘X’. As you can see, it has no effect on the spread of data. This is because the data do not know it is there. The data plod on regardless within the constraints of prevailing system conditions. Setting a target within the existing range of data just means that sometimes the target is hit and sometimes it isn’t, regardless of constant effort. Now, if you were to set a target outside of one of the control limits (say your response times ranged between 6 and 20 minutes and you thought a 5 minute response time target would be nice), then this is beyond the capabilities of the system and can therefore not be achieved unless the system itself is reconfigured. Holding individuals to account for something that is a direct result of the system design is pointless and counterproductive.
Special Offer: Adverse Consequences Free With Every Target!
Finally, no matter how well-intentioned targets are, there is none that is immune from causing dysfunctional behaviour. This is fact. There is a range of evidence worldwide that demonstrates this. It’s already known. Have a look at these articles for a start:
I’m not going to go into the dysfunctional behaviour that targets cause, as we would be here all day – the consequences of target-driven performance management are well-documented in these articles, elsewhere on my blog pages, and in the news, as I’m sure you are already aware.
Here’s some common pitfalls to watch out for, which people sometimes think will mitigate the adverse effects of target-driven performance management:
- Simply implementing fewer targets. Well, this is exactly the sort of thing that systems thinker John Seddon is referring to in his point, ‘Doing less of the wrong thing is not the same as doing the right thing’.
- Assuming that it’s not the targets that are the problem, but the way they’re implemented. Sorry, but the pathogens are built into the target. There is no way to effectively implement something that is inherently defective.
- Increasing ‘accountability mechanisms’ to counteract the dysfunctional behaviour likely to be caused by the targets. This misses the point. It also generates unnecessary bureaucracy and waste. It’s like bursting a balloon then blaming the pin.
It’s easy to criticise, but criticism is unhelpful if no alternative is offered. Well, the crux of my alternative is in removing numerical targets and replacing them with meaningful, purpose-derived measures that actually tell you how your system is performing. I cover this proposition and explain the important distinction between targets, measures and priorities in my blog ‘Spot the Difference’. Go on, have a read.
My final thought on the targets issue is that I don’t necessarily believe people install targets because they’re bad people – targets are just so commonplace in conventional management practice that it’s easy to adopt them unquestioningly. They appear to be a plausible method for achieving what we all want – better performance. There has been some really constructive and lively debate on the subject recently, on social media and beyond, involving members of the public, PCCs, and police officers of all ranks. This suggests to me that people really care. I certainly do.
As recently as this morning, someone posted a comment on one of my other blog posts which read:
“…and now I think the challenge is to convince PCCs”.
I hope this goes some way toward doing so. If you are in a position to grasp this unique opportunity to take police performance management beyond the dark days of hitting the target whilst missing the point, then if you haven’t already, please be bold enough to do something different.
To rebalance the proportion of lightheartedness per blog post required to meet my self-imposed arbitrary numerical target for jocularity, I’ll return to the mysterious photo at the start. The only reason it’s there is because it was taken in the beautiful city of Prague, where most of this post was written. Here’s another, taken in my favourite bar there, alongside two of the barstaff.
More Krušovice Černe please!