Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Targets, SLAs and Tractor Stats

There was an interesting phone-in on fivelive this morning, about the target "culture". It was prompted by news items on how prison inspections were innefective because the prisons prepare for them by transferring problem prisoners, and other tactics (two senior prison managers have been suspended for this trick).

It quickly spread to school and hospital inspections and targets in general. There were many callers able to give examples of how being measured solely by targets is entirely counterproductive. A number of NHS trusts, for example, employ managers in A&E to ensure targets are met, where the money could have been used for more medical staff to actually make a difference. People are admitted to hospital, using a bed, rather than break the 4 hour limit, where the reason for the delay can be entirely reasonable, and for clinical reasons.

A teacher described how he left the profession because he was so burdened by meeting all the requirements pushed down from the government that he couldn't plan his lessons in the way he knew was really beneficial to the students.

They just don't work for the benfit of the consumer.

And then, like a flash bulb going off, I saw the analogy - or well, an example where I know they don't work.

I worked in and around IT services - from both sides - providing services and receiving them from a service provider.

SLAs - Service Level Agreements. Targets. Key performance indicators. Don't work. Well, at least very rarely.

You see, when two parties contract, one to purchase, and one to provide a service, and the quality of that service is quantified by numbers, and the meeting of those figures determines payment, or compliance with the contract (and compliance or non-compliance has a critical effect on managers and staff within the service provider), the focus is on the figures. It's incredibly hard to get numbers to really determine the quality of a service accurately and fully.

The service provider's first priority is to meet the targets, by hook, or very often, by crook. It means things that can really make a difference, but provide little benefit to the provider, suffer, get put on the back burner.

Targets allow those responsible for providing a service, and those responsible for procuring a service, to look squeaky clean and great at their jobs. While reality can be very very different.

Performance measurement has a very important place in this arena, but theyshould be used intelligently, and as a guide to where improvements can be made. They should be used flexibly and co-operatively, to ensure a finite resource is used to best effect.

It's stating the bleeding obvious, but this government is not interested in taking responsibility. Targets aren't to make services better, but for them to be able to raise their hands and claim it isn't their fault.

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