OPINION: Targets do not always hit the mark

By Howard Williamson

| 26 February 2003

It is sometimes observed facetiously that the definition of a target is "whatever you hit". The trouble is there is not much room for flippancy in the tough public sector context of targets, targets, targets. The Government quietly (or as quietly as possible) drops a range of targets it has failed to meet. Clare Short tells the public administration committee that there are too many targets and she was minded to set low targets so they would be achieved. Yet more targets continue to be set.

The Youth Justice Board wants 90 per cent of young people in custody to receive at least 30 hours of education a week. The youth service in England has just signed up to a target of 60 per cent of the target population (itself a target of 25 per cent of the youth population) undergoing personal and social development that results in an accredited outcome. Both of these are laudable aspirations, and something we should work towards (to a level of 100 per cent). But to hang judgments of professional effectiveness (and subsequent funding decisions) on them is absurd, especially so when skills, capacity and resources are so far away from any mark where they are likely to be achieved.

Nonetheless, I do not have any problem with judgment on the basis of targets that are realistic and can be achieved. But there are two fundamental flaws in the obsession with targets. The first is that, where targets are patently unrealistic, they engender what has come to be called "perverse behaviour".

Professionals find and work with the groups most likely to help them reach the target. This leaves the primary objectives of our attention (those most in need and most excluded) out in the cold. We do not work with them because they will take too much time to achieve success. The youth training target of NVQ level 2 is the classic case in point: it produced much of the social exclusion with which we are preoccupied.

The second issue is captured well in the Welsh youth policy document Extending Entitlement. Hidden away in the original text is the sentence: "The quality of opportunity extended to young people is sometimes more important than the specificity of outcome." Sometimes, not always. But it is a pertinent sentence for youth work, where we can rarely be sure what young people will do with their experiences, but we can be reasonably confident it will be a good thing if organised appropriately.

Politicians and funders need to learn patience. Working with young people at the sharp end takes time, sensitivity and a style that does not lend itself to quick fixes. We should aspire to positive outcomes and establish processes to achieve them, but the insistence on rigid targets does not always assist that cause.

Howard Williamson is involved in research, policy and practice with young people. He is a member of the Youth Justice Board. howard.williamson@haynet.com.

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