Outcomes, not processes
by Sonia Sodha
Today David Cameron announced what he described as a radical shift in government accountability and transparency: a new website featuring departmental business plans with a 'milestone check' that allows citizens to see exactly what actions have been completed when - and which are overdue. Government targets - Public Service Agreements - have been abolished to make way for these plans. Cameron hailed this as a 'new system of democratic accountability'.
This is a grand claim indeed. There's no question that Labour's targets regime sometimes ended up with unintended consequences, with public servants focused on a specific target rather than the bigger-picture outcomes. There is a strong case that these targets do need to be simplified and strengthened, particularly in an era of public service reform in which there will rightly be more decentralisation to front-line practitioners and service users. As more powers over process - and what to do - get decentralised, politicians have a responsibility to ensure that service deliverers are held to account for the right outcomes - the things that people care about, as David Cameron has argued.
But scrapping targets to hold government departments accountable and replacing them with process-based milestones is not the way forward. Take the DWP spending plan, for example. One of the milestones is publishing a White Paper on plans to introduce the Universal Credit by November 2010. As a citizen I'm not that interested in whether the DWP publishes its White Paper by its own internally set deadline: I'm much more interested in the quality of the coalition's plans and the impact they will have on incentives to work and employment in general.
We've all heard of SMART targets. In the workplace these tend to be outcomes-focused: there's no point in a Demos researcher producing a poor quality policy report that will have no impact whatsoever in order to meet a deadline. The Coalition's focus on transparency and simplification is very welcome. But it would be far more effective to have simplified outcome targets rather than move to a more process-based approach for holding government departments to account.