Politicians hate targets. The risk associated with them is all too apparent. Failure to achieve a goal means they themselves become highly visible targets for opponents. The Government, therefore, pondered long and hard in 2012 before announcing five-year targets for some of the country's most daunting social problems. Specific percentage changes are required to meet 10 public service goals covering such matters as violent crime, long-term welfare dependency, supporting vulnerable children, and NCEA pass rates. The degree of risk may have been overstated, however, judging by the recent release of a progress report by the State Services Commission.
The picture is mixed. Benchmarks for reducing welfare dependency and crime have been met, and the Government is on track for 85 per cent of 18-year-olds to achieve NCEA level 2 by 2017 and for 95 per cent of children younger than 8 months to be fully immunised. But it has failed to meet interim goals in other sectors. In particular, it is not on schedule to meet targets for a reduction in the rate of assaults on children and for children going to hospital with rheumatic fever.
The shortfalls are, obviously, damaging to the Government. In other sectors, it is also becoming clear that the targets will not be reached as easily as might have been surmised. The goal associated with level 2 NCEA, for example, is getting more difficult as the degree of achievement rises. This is illustrated by an initially rapid increase in the pass rate from 67 per cent in 2010, but only a slight improvement to 78.6 per cent over the past 12 months. Yet, perversely, such difficulties may bestow an unexpected cachet on the Government's programme. Gone to a large degree is the worrying thought that every effort, not least the dispatch of scarce resources, would be used to ensure each of the interim targets was met.
Other malign consequences were also possible. Many of the sectors demand a high degree of sensitivity. A temptation to pay little heed to that was provided by relating chief executives' pay to the meeting of the goals. The pursuit of infant immunisation, for example, could easily have become the subject of a more heavy-handed approach. There was every chance that the 95 per cent target could be achieved with some ease if such tactics were adopted. It is, therefore, reassuring that, while the rate has increased to 91 per cent, there is still quite some way to go.
The importance of these progress reports should lie in the fact that they indicate approaches which are not working. This should send departmental chief executives and ministers back to the drawing board to come up with action plans that will deliver more positive trends. For inspiration, they can look at the excellent progress towards cutting criminal reoffending by 25 per cent. This is based on a sharp change of policy, including extended drug and alcohol addiction services for prisoners and expanded education and job training in prison.
In some cases, of course, the targets may be either unrealistic given the complexities involved or beyond the resourcing of the department. But the overall thrust of the progress report is that most of the targets will be met. This indicates a sharper focus in the public service, which was always Finance Minister Bill English's major aim. The five-year goals are intended to embed a greater discipline and an emphasis on results and, importantly, clear ideas on how these will be achieved.
The proof in the pudding was always going to be the relatively quick improvement in the statistics for most of the 10 areas of social concern. Rethinking is required in some instances, but to an appreciable degree that appears to be happening.