Faulty indicators

Performance indicators may be about raising
standards of services but they are also about who is in control
-Whitehall civil servants or front-line professionals, writes
Conrad Russell.

Performance indicators, and the culture of
which they are a part, are a problem which certainly is not
confined to social work. They have been in the news recently in the
health service, in university teaching, and in school examination
results. They are a cause of near-universal dissatisfaction to
public service professionals who have to work with them. They are,
as the current row about GCSE standards illustrates, a source of
temptation to those who have to use them. There is a sense in
Goodhart’s Law (invented by Professor Charles Goodhart, formerly of
the Monetary Policy Committee) that the more any figure is relied
on as an indicator, the less use it is in understanding what is

It perhaps helps if we raise our noses from
our own professional grindstones, and examine the issue as a
constitutional problem. What rapidly emerges is that the issue is
about power. The question is whether it is public service
professionals or Whitehall civil servants who decide what is good
practice in services in which the professionals are qualified, and
Whitehall is not. The civil service is a profession in which it is
possible to get blame, but not praise, and in any devolved
relationship with a public service, Whitehall is haunted by the
fear that civil servants may be held accountable for some lapse in
standards over which they had no control.

Performance indicators also rest on the
assumption that good practice is the same in all cases. It is not.
Most of the best teaching I received, and I believe also some of
the best I have done, resulted from deliberate rejection of the
conventional indicators for the sake of the end for which the job
is done. I remember interviewing an idle undergraduate at the
beginning of his second year. I was, I think, expected to recommend
that he be sent down. Instead, I told him he could get a first if
he thought it was worth bothering – and he did! Under performance
indicators, I would have been guilty of a dereliction of duty.

Performance indicators constantly conflict
with each other. The speed with which a review of child protection
cases is done may easily conflict with the accuracy and care with
which it is done. Exclusive concentration on indicators means
losing sight of the purpose for which the whole operation is being
done. This also means leaving out any recognition of the fact that
what is good practice in one case may be very bad practice in
another. In social work, this is likely to be of peculiar
importance. It is no use saying that indicators must not be
over-interpreted. It is of their very nature that they will be
over-interpreted. They are all that Whitehall will know when it
reviews a local authority’s standard of service. It is no good
saying it is necessary to take account of quality as well as
quantity. It is impossible to take statistics about quality, so it
will not appear in Whitehall’s calculations. Again, what is
emphasised is that this is a struggle about power. Is the service
to be controlled by those who know how to do it, or by someone in

Replies to all this will be cast in terms of
accountability. These replies deserve answers. Accountability on
one level is something which must always be required of recipients
of public money. It must be spent on the objects for which it is
given, honestly, transparently, and on causes which people are
ready to justify to their peers. It is when government decides to
“improve” a service that the problems begin, for it does not know
what “improvement” may mean in a given context. That is why it
plays safe and relies on all these figures instead.

The need to save money will always be part of
the case for performance indicators. That is a perfectly proper
need, but fixed budgets make most of us aware enough of that need
already. When we get to the point that was reached in 1640, when
soldiers were made to pay out of their own wages for any powder
used in firing their weapons, the only people likely to be
satisfied are the enemy. Only people doing the job can decide what
is actually necessary to be spent. Between that decision and
Whitehall’s perfectly proper decision about how much money can be
made available, there must be perpetual negotiation.

In deciding how much can be available,
Whitehall must be supreme. In deciding what the money will and will
not buy, professionals must be supreme. It is one of the biggest
dangers of performance indicators that they are used as whipping
posts to blame social workers and other public service
professionals for not doing what they could never have afforded to

Conrad Russell is Liberal Democrat
social security spokesperson and professor of British history,
Kings College, London.

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