Targets used to be something to aim at (see illustration). Nowadays they are (a) a means of control and (b) a sure fire way of screwing up the systems they are meant to regulate. Nominally introduced to ensure that certain services are being delivered or improved (sales, hospital care, student retention etc.), they have evolved into the main point of the exercise, whatever that may be. Want to cut hospital waiting lists? Then do as many ingrown toenails as possible and hey presto! You have met your target! Need to keep a tight hold on the hospital budget? Then avoid all those expensive life-saving therapies and operations, and concentrate on — well, toenails, obviously. Hand-in-hand with the tick-box, targets are the bureaucrats' dream, positive-performance indicating and cost-cutting everything in sight!
A trainee English teacher once told me that his supervisor had demanded that he un-interest his students in the mechanics of rhythm and metre, because he was supposed to be teaching them something else (presumably something of little interest to the students in question). I don’t know, but I suspect that there was a tick-box target somewhere in the background, if only at the forefront of the supervisor’s mind.
The Soviet secret police used to have targets: every night they were expected to knock on n numbers of doors and arrest people who could then be targeted in another way (shot or just sent to a labour camp). It needn’t matter that their victims had done little or nothing, there was a target quota of "traitors" to round up, and if they didn’t, the police might find themselves making up the numbers instead (and I don’t mean cooking the books).
Now, it is difficult to work out whether Stalin was just paranoid or hungry for more slave-workers, but this method of establishing quotas or targets covered both bases (what efficiency!) — it fulfilled the nominal functions and the less obvious one of providing the raw material for the Soviet Union’s breakneck industrialisation.
Something similar appears to be happening at the DWP. They haven’t yet got round to shooting benefit claimants (although there is a drift towards slavery or involuntary volunteer-ism), but it is tick-boxing budgetary targets using two methods:
- Help the claimant get a job, and (much easier),
- "Sanction" their payments — in other words cut or remove their benefits [Claimants ‘tricked’ out of benefits, says Job centre whistle-blower].
This is bad enough, but I don’t think I am wrong in saying the police also have certain targets to fulfil [Police forces facing dozens of new performance targets], and I may (just may) have been the victim of one of them. As a result of a well-oiled response to a phone-call made to me, I was arrested by armed police and charged with making a malicious telecommunication. Now, I don’t suppose they could have just let the matter drop (it was all a misunderstanding), otherwise, how would they justify the cost in terms of time and money. Anyway, I was cautioned and relieved not to have been "liquidated", but I do wonder if some target (other than myself) was behind my arrest and conviction.
"Targets" turn people and human activity into statistics and I am certain that Immanuel Kant would have described this practice as a category mistake. People are subjects not objects and when, for instance, college authorities start talking about "units" instead of "students" (I never did quite work out how many "units" made up one student), you can tell that in spite of their undoubted good intentions, they are at risk of missing the whole point of the exercise.
As we used to say on darts night down the pub, “On the board to win!”