The merit (or otherwise) of overly ambitious target setting

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne recently announced the latest in a series of stringent environmental targets. The UK has signed up to stricter emissions limits for the fourth carbon budget period of 2023 to 2027, when we’ve pledged to have cut emissions to 50% of 1990 levels.

However, claims that this will be “…the greenest government ever” have been questioned by Jonathan Porritt, the former Chairman of the now defunct Sustainable Development Commission.  In a Friends of the Earth report, Mr Porritt found that, of 78 green policies, little or no progress has been made on 59, and 30 were “moribund”.

Huhne’s commitment reflects the urgent need for the UK to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and to speed up the transition to a low carbon economy. As a nation, we are already falling way behind our European neighbours when it comes to the proportion of our energy needs that comes from renewable sources. Germany for example, gets 16% of its electricity from wind, solar and other renewable sources, and this proportion is increasing – it is three times’ higher than the level Germany had achieved 15 years ago. The UK generates only 7% of its requirements from renewables, despite a huge amount of untapped potential.

A commitment to reducing emissions is undoubtedly necessary and laudable. However, if current levels of investment and development continue, it is highly unlikely that the 2027 target will be met. The move reflects a wider obsession in modern society with improbable goal setting.

So why does the Government feel the need to constantly commit to aims that are often unachievable? Perhaps this is a hangover from the New Labour days and their tendency to import corporate management techniques into public policy making. In all major policy areas, the Blair administrations set targets – from cutting down waiting lists in hospitals and other medical services, increasing the percentage of children in schools who reach a certain standard of literacy and numeracy by a certain age, to getting a higher percentage of young people into university.

In many of these areas they were undoubtedly successful – reducing child poverty, for example – but this success was not repeated across the board. In 2008, Peter Neyroud, chief executive of the National Policing Improvement Agency, stated “Because detecting a stolen milk bottle counted the same as detecting a murder, you get your points from, not necessarily milk bottles, but certainly in mid-range, volume crime rather than serious crime.”

All the while, the bureaucracy needed to monitor all this target fulfillment grew exponentially.
‘Target Obsession Disorder’, as it has been dubbed in the blogosphere, creates mountains of paperwork and form filling, and undermines the balance between work and effectiveness. It creates an environment where what counts is meeting the targets, not how good the service is or how satisfied the consumer is.

Perhaps there is something to be said for the argument that by setting targets deliberately high, if we fail to reach them by a fraction then a high level has been reached regardless – shooting for the stars and hitting the moon.

All too often, however, it seems as though the motivation behind overly ambitious objectives is the fact that they allow for triumphant headlines and brash public statements. The cynic in me suggests that target setting is driven as much by this as it is by the desire to bring about positive change in policy areas.

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