Editorial: Targets have more pitfalls than benefits

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Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZPA
Prime Minister John Key. Photo / NZPA

The Prime Minister has done his best to boost the significance of the 10 targets that the Government has set for the public sector to achieve over five years in policies relating to welfare, vulnerable children, crime, skills and employment, and digital advances. These were "not a wish-list, they are a to-do list", said John Key. To that end, the head of Work and Income, for example, could lose a bonus if there are not 23,000 fewer long-term beneficiaries by 2017. But while that may be some sort of incentive, it does nothing to explain how such a goal will be reached.

Setting targets is always of limited value unless there is a clear idea of how they will be achieved. It is all very well for the Government to suggest that public sector chief executives will, in exchange for their greater accountability, gain greater flexibility to achieve targets. But if the notion for making progress is flawed in some way or not fully resourced, there will be little or no improvement. Equally, the targets may simply be unrealistic.

The Government suggests ministers and departmental chief executives will be working on action plans that ensure the 2017 targets will be met. These will need to be comprehensive and lean heavily on departmental expertise. Otherwise, the chance of success becomes much slimmer. At best, the presence of the targets may simply highlight approaches that are not working.

In one of the few areas where a clear policy has been enunciated, the goal is to reduce reoffending by 25 per cent, have 18,500 fewer victims of crime, and 600 fewer people in jail. The Corrections Minister says this will be achieved by extending drug and alcohol addiction services to all prisoners, expanding education and employment training in prisons, and giving greater support for prisoners to find jobs when they are released. The Budget contained a $65 million funding boost for this rehabilitation work.

The thrust of this policy suggested a strong input from Corrections executives, if only because it marks a sharp shift from the Government's normal rhetoric on crime and criminals. Use of that expertise is clearly beneficial. However, even then the target will be difficult to reach, not least because of the high imprisonment rate, a legacy of the previous failed policy. The extra funding may well prove inadequate. The disruption that will flow from combining the department's rehabilitation and probation arms, part of the savings drive throughout the public service, is unlikely to be helpful, either.

Some of the other targets seem sweeping and daunting in equal measure. Take that of cutting the number of people who have been on a working-age benefit for more than a year by 30 per cent. This is a more complex issue than the Government appears ready to accept, and any action plan could easily be derailed.

Equally, the inclusion of bonuses for chief executives if targets are met enters the sort of territory that has been tainted by the ACC's dealing with some of its claimants. Chief executives must have a clear understanding of ethical boundaries and the need to strike an appropriate balance when dealing with people's wellbeing. The goal of increasing infant immunisation rates, for example, must be pursued with a degree of sensitivity.

In theory, the 10 targets could be a means of measuring a government's performance. But despite Mr Key's enthusiasm, they seem unlikely to serve that purpose. Nor are they likely to represent a potent political weapon if in five years, shortfalls are dredged up by Opposition parties. Such is usually the way with targets. And these have as many problems associated with them as most.

- NZ Herald

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