Targets are the tools of command and control

The public service reform agenda has taught us to focus more on outputs and outcomes, to be more people-centred, and to delegate. We talk about coaching, training, diversity, and empowerment. These are changes for the better, but we are stuck inside a model in which the bosses do the thinking and the workers wield the screwdrivers.

This is the thinking of an old industrial system of command and control, in which decision-making was separated from work. As the scale and complexity of public services has grown, managers have had to abandon the attempt to control the individual activities of their staff, and now use target-setting to try to control the organisation.

Why targets don’t do what they are intended for

When you do think about why we have targets, it turns out that the reasons are not very good.

  • “targets motivate people”
    On the whole, they don’t. Most people – especially public servants – already want to do a good job. It is conceit to think that setting a target is going to make someone work harder. When targets do cause people to behave differently, it is usually to do something perverse to meet the numerical target.
  • “targets set direction”
    It is important for everyone in the organisation to know and understand what the organisation is trying to achieve. But that should mean getting on with the work that really matters. Targets turn people’s attention to being seen to meet targets instead.

Why targets do harm

Targets are damaging because they:

  • focus attention on the wrong aspects of the work
  • create incentives to do things which are not in the interests of the customers
  • impose costs of collecting and reporting information
  • allow managers to abdicate their responsibility to provide real leadership
  • erode morale.

There are countless examples across the public sector where targets have led to perverse behaviours, from health to prisons. Some result in grand policy failures. More often, the targets merely lead to behaviour which corrodes the quality of the service to the customer.

Could we cure all this by setting better targets?

Some would say that these problems would disappear if we set targets that are really well aligned with our objectives. Wouldn’t that eliminate perverse incentives, and help to ensure that everyone was doing the right thing?

Well, no, it wouldn’t. For one thing, it is very hard to set good targets, since managers usually have no information about what the customer really cares about. Target setting embodies incrementalism, so limiting the pace of change. And targets always come with an associated bureaucracy of setting, measurement, reporting and validation – all of which diverts energy from the task the organisation should be focused on.

But most fundamentally, target setting is based on a command and control mindset which assumes that the job of managers is to find a way to “get the workers to do the work”. We have to leave that behind us if we are to transform our services.

The role of leaders

The Civil Service has taught managers that our job is to manage people and manage budgets; and that we should drive performance through the organisation by setting targets, monitoring activity and appraising performance.

In my view, our job in an empowered organisation is to:

  • understand our customer value: what do our customers really care about from us?
  • design a system to deliver that value
  • ensure that we have the capabilities to operate that system
  • drive out waste: that is, cut out everything that we don’t have to do which does not contribute to customer value;
  • understand the causes of variations in our performance, and drive out those reasons for poor performance that are within our control.

To do this, managers have to be closer to the work. You cannot have bosses in a management factory doing the thinking while the workers do the work. Everyone in the organisation has really to understand the system from end to end, and to focus on how it can be improved to deliver what the customer wants.


People matter. Training matters. Delegation matters. Outputs matter. Financial accountability matters. Nothing I’ve said here should be misunderstood as saying that they don’t. However, we can tick all the boxes in the Investor in People specification and still not deliver a good service.

If we shift out of the command and control mentality, and really trust and empower our staff, we will achieve so much more, and meet the IiP standard on the way.

Working in the public services is an important, honourable role. Targets are making it harder for us to deliver what the public expect.


Martin Drewry · November 27, 2009 at 4:28 pm

Brilliant article! I agree with pretty much every word.

Not as eloquently written, but here’s a discussion paper I prepared for my Trustees recently, making similar points. (I’m Director of a development NGO called Health Unlimited.):

Where are we going, and how are we going to get there?

Well, one thing’s for sure – it’s a complicated world, so if we don’t set out with a clear plan we’re in for trouble. You can tell that from something as simple as assembling Ikea furniture. If you don’t have a plan you should expect the outcome to be a mess.

But is the same true of organisations? How effective are their plans? How much do they really affect what the organisation does? And is their impact positive or negative?

Are they the primary and indispensable tool of effective strategic management, or expensive imposters that divert senior management time and inhibit ongoing strategic effectiveness?

The Strategic Plan

The traditional strategic plan originated in the private sector in the 60s. Typically a reasonably formal process, it combines short and long term planning. The result generally includes a vision statement (what we ultimately want), mission statement (what we’re going to do to get there), goals and objectives, and associated targets and indicators. The process usually involves an assessment of internal strengths and weaknesses, and external opportunities and threats. A range of strategic options are assessed, from which one is chosen. The plan, with linked annual plans, sets out where we want to be at a specific point in the future (commonly five years), and maps out the route by which we’re going to get there, with milestones along the way so we can make sure we’re on track.

So what’s wrong with it?

Plenty. It’s an approach that is increasingly discredited and discarded in the private sector. The strategic plan’s failure is well documented. Sony, Kodak, Amstrad, Federal Express and Honda are all examples of companies that have recognised this and achieved success through new approaches (Ralph Stacey, “Managing the Unknowable”). Kaufman and Herman (“Strategic Planning in Education”) similarly chart the failure of the importation of the model to the public sector.

Critics of the strategic plan highlight several reasons for its failure, including:

1) The fallacy of predetermination. The future is complex and unpredictable. (Strategic plans have sometimes had more relevance to mass production companies, tied to particular machinery and production lines, where reaction to a changing environment is difficult anyway.)
2) It leads to detachment. Effective managers are in touch and involved. But the demands of planning divert energy and attention for extended periods.
3) Periods of planning are followed by periods of implementation (at regular intervals). That doesn’t fit with the way the world works. Strategy needs to be ongoing and reactive, just as much (if not more) than it’s pre-planned.
4) The formality and constraints of plans tend to encourage behaviour that undermines creativity and strategic thinking.
5) Stakeholders change during the life of the plan (eg charities working in new countries or with new communities), and the new stakeholders will have had no input into it.
6) Plans are expensive. Researching, writing and agreeing them. Devising, estimating, monitoring and reporting targets and indicators. Doing this with sufficient rigour for it to have even a chance of being meaningful and useful is very costly (most notably in terms of time.)
7) Strategic plans often fail to direct what organisations really do anyway. Often they regurgitate what is already internalised and would be done anyway. Often they result in little change, with staff simply describing the same activities in ways that fit the new criteria. Often they largely just sit on the shelf, of little ongoing relevance and outdated within months of being approved.

So why is so much of the voluntary sector trying to catch up with something that didn’t work in the first place?

Alternatives for Health Unlimited

Probably the greatest tragedy of the traditional approach to planning is that there’s a sense of ‘job done’ about it in terms of attention to impact and accountability, and ongoing strategic thinking. The lists of objectives, indicators and targets give the impression of rigour, professionalism and accountability, while in reality being nothing of the sort – but diverting the energy of managers and trustees from approaches that could be more effective.

How might we do it better?

• First we need to remember how little managerial time and resources to allocate. We can’t produce the kind of plans organisations with more resources could, even if that was a good thing.
• So we need to be very selective about what we address in planning – focusing attention on the big wins and keeping paperwork light and accessible. Much of our work is internalised and ongoing, and requires no planning intervention to deliver. Listing all this each time diverts focus from the things that do require planning intervention.
• We should focus on the key areas where change is needed – things we’re going to stop doing, things we’re going to do differently, and things we’re going to start doing.

Academic literature distinguishes deliberate, pre-planned strategy from emergent reactive strategy where patterns develop over time in the absence (or in spite of) previous intentions.

• We should aim for a balance between the two.
• The former should not provide too much operational detail, stifling future creativity and soon feeling outdated.
• If priorities identified in it are not understood – ie people aren’t clear what they mean – then that must be clarified or they will be ineffective. But if they are broad and flexible (what some might call ‘loose’), then that is more likely to be a strength than a weakness.
• It should help develop a shared view of the world, our role within it, and the direction we are going as an organisation – along with a shared perspective of the key challenges we face, and our forthcoming priorities in terms of addressing them.
• It should encourage and inspire (rather than inhibit) ongoing strategic thinking and reactivity.

Traditional planning tends to focus on plans for the coming year – what we’re going to do, and what we’re going to achieve.

• Setting targets and indicators is often associated with accountability and measuring impact. In truth it has little to do with either, but diverts us from things that do.
• It’s not what we say we’re going to do that’s important. Otherwise political promises would be worth their weight in gold. It’s what we actually deliver that matters. We are accountable for the impact we have – and impact is something that must be assessed after implementation, not from plans.
• One of the biggest problems in development is an obsession (often donor driven) with completion of activities and attainment of targets rather than analysis of impact. Activities can completed according to plan, and targets can be exceeded, and yet impact can be negligible or even negative.
• Neither do targets measure performance. It can be argued that the development sector (collectively) performed poorly in the Make Poverty History year, failing to make best use of the tremendous opportunities available. Yet in terms of targets achieved around profile and political progress it was one of our most successful years ever. Like impact, levels of performance have to be judged after the fact, in the light of the opportunities and difficulties encountered.

Targets have their place as a management tool. We might need to complete one thing before we can do another, or set something motivate staff attention in a particular direction. But targets must be used sparingly or they lose their effectiveness, and they risk undermining wider considerations.

Our prime responsibility is to maximise impact, which means addressing two key questions as conscientiously and effectively as possible:

1. What impact are we having (directly and indirectly)? (Recognising that not all impact is measurable! An informed guess might be the best we can – and should – do.)

2. What can we do to have more in future?

Our planning process therefore needs to:

a) Provide a broad directional framework, identifying key challenges and priorities.

b) Assess our performance and impact over the previous planning period (perhaps selecting a particular work area for detailed analysis).

c) Draw out lessons to improve future practice.

d) Agree the information we will gather over the forthcoming work period to inform our next impact assessment and review.


There’s a mountain of writing on these issues. Probably the most influential critic of the traditional strategic plan is a Canadian called Henry Mintzberg. His most famous book is called “The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning”. Googling him will bring up a range of interesting articles. While academic, he has a very readable style.

Martin Drewry
September 2009

Greg · August 4, 2013 at 10:08 pm

I think the author is confusing incentive with target. An incentive (e.g. reward) can be used to motivate one to do more work or achieve a certain goal. For example, pay can be an incentive to workers. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid. An incentive, however, is a specific temporary goal that allows one to achieve a larger, overall goal (target). In this way, a target is strategic planning and implementation. For example, one can say, we need to reduce malaria in Country A. Ok, that is admirable, but how much do we want to reduce it (realistically)? If we say by 10% per year, now we have a goal with specificity. Now, we can plan how we will reduce it by 10%. It helps focus our thinking. If we had 600,000 cases last year we need to reduce it by 60,000 cases next year. What can help reduce it? Now we can come up with specific tasks that will fit our strategy and reduce it by the target amount. How do we know if we succeed? By measuring our results.
In a similar way, Mr. Drewry in his reply above attacks the idea of target when what he is really describing is a long range strategic plan. I agree that most businesses today do not do much planning beyond 1 – 3 years because the advent of technology and information dispersion changes the landscape so rapidly. However, every organization, whether profit or non-profit, has short term plans. I’m sure his organization has funding goals (a target), has a budget (spending target), and goals to accomplish for the year (operational target). Without targets we would have no idea where we are or where we are going. If you want to drive to Los Angeles, it is better to have a map and a destination in mind rather than just start driving aimlessly. Even Garmin wants to know your destination (target).
To not measure results and have definable goals is a waste of time and resources. Also, since we have no objective measure (e.g. target) we do not know if we are succeeding. Without knowing the result we will feel like we are failing, when we actually might not be failing, and we might therefore change course when it is really working.
In a similar context, when doing research how do we know if our research is sound? By looking at the statistical results. We might have an alpha of .05. That is just a target for confidence in our study.
To use a sports analogy, the soccer field has two goals. We don’t score a point until one of the nets is hit. The net is just a goal. A target provides focus and increases the chance of success.
As the old saying goes, if you don’t aim at anything, you will hit it every time. Without targets we would not know if we are really making a difference.

    Bob Ainsworth · February 28, 2017 at 10:22 am

    You’re missing the point entirely. Let’s look at your example of reducing malaria by 10%.

    So, the target is set and over the course of a year the target is hit and we reduce malaria by 10% from last years target of 2%
    So we have:-
    2016 2% reduction
    2017 10% reduction.

    We can pat our selves on our backs as we have achieved target…BUT all we have there is a binary comparison between two figures, however Malaria is still there. It still affects people in their thousands. We still have 540,000 people suffering with malaria.

    So, without targets we look at it this way. A patient comes in and we take a detailed look at their history of ailments, their living conditions, their water supply, their eating habits etc etc. We ask them what they think the cause is. We do this for every person and we then collate that data and see what is a common failure. As an example, let’s say that it is their water supply. So we look at the water supply and sure enough it is rampant with mosquitoes. We eradicate them and the number of cases of malaria fall drastically. However we are still getting people in as patients. So we carry on and look to see what else can be affecting this. We also go back to the first cause and check that that is not a contributory factor, and this carries on, we don’t look at a target whatsoever yet we are making a massive difference.

    //To not measure results and have definable goals is a waste of time and resources. Also, since we have no objective measure (e.g. target) we do not know if we are succeeding//

    But we do, by looking at the failures coming into the system and fixing those.

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