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Friday, January 13, 2012

Those elusive targets

Target setting in government is a noble and worthy thing to do. It brings focus to a the work of ministers and provides goals against which we can measure their performance. However, there is another side to this activity that provides a moral imperative to get it right.

If a target is set too far into the future it can blunt or even defer scrutiny, whilst making it impossible to attribute responsibility if it is missed. That is not good government. It is also bad politics to set unrealistic targets so as to give the impression of activity and achievement. That undermines confidence in government and reduces the credibility of other targets.

A good example of the latter was the Welsh Government's target, set in 1999 to eliminate homelessness by 2003. Homelessness is still with us. That was inevitable, because people's circumstances change and because it can sometimes take a long time to persuade hard core rough sleepers to take up services.

Another target I am sceptical about is the one which seeks to eliminate child poverty by 2020. I support that aim but is it achievable? Just looking at it statistically it is very difficult. As child poverty is defined as living on an income of 60% or below of the average, then by definition it is a moveable objective.

You can raise the income of a significant chunk of the population but you cannot stop those earning above the average also improving their standard of living. Effectively, therefore all you have done is to move the average to a different point on the scale. I would suggest that you only eliminate child poverty by this definition when you have full employment and everybody earns the same amount.

It is an interesting dilemma and means that in reality what you are seeking to do is to make relative improvements in the lifestyle of the poorest in our society. There is no target for that.

All of this brings me to the latest missed target, the one that said that we would have all 221,000 homes in the social housing sector up to standard by 2012. The Wales Audit Office has concluded that even by 2017, only 79% of properties will be up to standard. It is only now that we can properly scrutinise this target.

I think that it became clear a few years after this target was set that not only did we not have the resources to deliver it but that when it was set we did not have sufficient information to properly assess it achieveability either. The same was true of the Welsh Government target to make all Welsh schools fit for purpose by 2010. We now have a ten year programme from 2014 that will spend £4 billion on improving our schools. Nobody is pretending anymore that even this will deliver full fitness, even if it is affordable.

The housing fitness target was ambitious, it gave the impression that the Government was doing something, but it also deferred proper scrutiny and it failed because Ministers never properly embraced the only tool that might come close to delivering it, namely the transfer of council housing to not-for-profit housing associations.

The lesson should be there for all of us. Realistic targets are good, long-term, hard-to-measure, over-ambitious targets are not. It is time that we adjusted our governance accordingly.

I agree that eliminating child poverty is very dificult. And as a measure it is very arbiatry. What does it matter how much a family earns if a substantial amount goes on gambling, alcohol or tobacco.

But you have misunderstood the measure. Child poverty is defined as 60% of the median income (not the mean). Therefore it is 60% of what the middle family earns. What the 49.999% who earn more than the middle income family earn is irrelevant to the measure so "stopping those earning above the average also improving their standard of living" is a non-issue.
The Labour Welsh Government (LWG) should set itself targets that it will meet 100%, 100% of the time.

For example: GVA rating that remains AWFUL.
There’s no point setting targets for governments in the UK. The political system is so undemocratic and corrupt that each major party gets its turn in power no matter how badly it performs - and they do perform unbelievably badly!

In any case they set their own targets - parliamentary sovereignty ensures that they hold the power alternately no matter what.

Each party out-performs the other in making a mess not just of the economy, but of just about everything. Now the LibDems are proving that they're carved out of the same material - singing from the Tory hymn sheet. No wonder the Liberals were kicked out in 1922 - people had had enough of them even then.

As for the Welsh Government, it’s been Labour-led since its inception more than a decade ago. Its record has been poor to pathetic, despite recent efforts by Plaid to shake it out of its stagnation and complacency.

In any case Labour deliberately set up a token Assembly with little or no more powers than the SoS had.

In reality the strings are still being pulled at Westminster, and by London Labour, as there is no separate Labour party in Wales.

However, having said that, Carwyn seems to be waking up to the realisation that Wales will be vastly outnumbered at Westminster if the Scots gain independence. He might be torn between his Welshness and Miliband if that happens.

He can't be very good at Maths, as there are already 533 MPs from England out of the 650. The English MPs can already outvote all the others by over four-and-a-half times!

There's no doubt in my mind that Wales has suffered from belonging to such an asymmetric nation state - with wars here, there and everywhere.

Nevertheless, these are interesting times. Will the UK exist in ten years time, will it be vastly different, or will we be stuck with the failed system we now have?

It's likely that we'll have to look to the Scots for the answer. What do you think should happen as far as Wales is concerned if and when the Scots exit, Peter? Do you think Carwyn has a point, or is it just rhetoric?
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