Kittens are nice

Here is a kitten in a cup.

It is nice.

Shall I tell you what isn’t nice though?

Using performance indicators to “measure outcomes” in return for money.

It is also called payment by results, it is used in a lot of the public sector for all sorts of things. For example companies are paid by the DWP for getting unemployed people back into work. I’m not going into the ins and outs of this, I will just describe my experience of the innards of a bureaucracy when it deals with a form of payment by results.

I work in a Local Authority. A while ago there was a big thing called Local Public Service Agreements which morphed into the more jazzy sounding Local Area Agreements. In these things, councils, health agencies, the police etc from an area entered into an agreement with central government to deliver various “outcomes” from their area. Things like reduced teenage conceptions, or increase in business start-ups.

They were given some mysterious sounding thing called “pump-priming money”, that they could spend on what they needed to deliver the outcomes, to reach various pre-negotiated stretch targets, in return for which they would receive at the end of the 3 years some cold hard cash, the amount based on how many of the targets had been reached.

In short, get these targets and we’ll give you some money.

Through all my time at the local authority this LPSA/LAA hung around, there were project groups, quarterly reports, a strategic partnership board, and the usual panoply of hangers-on…performance management people. Like me.

It was mainly bollocks, and here is why.

Worrying about definitions.
Not worrying about purpose.. What matters in any target game is what is included in the definition of the target and what isn’t. A whole corporate performance management team, internal audit, directorate performance people, NHS/Police/Fire Service/DWP performance bids. All concerned over whether what was to be counted was being done. Not what mattered.

Worrying about paperwork
Vast files of finicky definitions were portered into meetings in huge clip files.
The focus was on showing, demonstrating, proving. The performance monitoring didn’t serve the work. The work was there to serve the performance monitoring.
Towards the end I had to pre-audit some of the indicators, before the actual audit. A real job!



Worrying about the money
The real reason. Extra money is great. I don’t blame any public sector management team for wanting more. My abiding memory of the sorry affair was half way through the period, being in a quarterly report meeting where the draft report was up on the projector and the author was going through it, so people in the room could offer suggested changes. The bit I still find astounding was how they were attempting to show the predicted amount of “reward grant” expected at the end of the contract. The report was going upwards, so everyone wanted to portray it as going well, and a predicted large payment for everyone at the end.
They showed the amount gained so far as a cartoon bag of cash, and the amount expected at the end of the period as a larger cartoon bag of cash. About 15 minutes was spent debating the relative sizes of the two pretend cartoon bags of cash. Everyone in that room, their eyes were  glued to the screen. “Bigger!” “too big!”, they cried.  NOT ONE person thought this odd.


that’s more like it

 This particular abomination has gone now, it was time-limited, but others have taken its place, as payment by results is just another manifestation of command and control thinking.  It relies on the belief that people can be motivated by money, that targets will improve services, and that performance monitoring of targets is the right way to tell if outcomes are being delivered, to use the parlance.

This is such an article of faith, that outcomes are good, that to point out the flaws is controversial. As recounted skilfully throughout here and by me copying using homo-erotic imagery  here,  it’s almost like calling kittens evil. There’s a website and an actual conference all about how kittens are evil, and payment by results isn’t a sound management method. Called kittens are evil, handily. Imagine that. You can’t go though, it’s tomorrow, it’s too late.


Next time you hear of payment by results, think of bureaucrats like me in a room shouting “bigger!”, “too big!” at a cartoon bag of cash, and think how much more useful anything else on earth would be.

This entry was posted in command and control, public sector, targets and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Kittens are nice

  1. Thanks for sharing this. The image of a room full of officers fixated on a cartoon money bag is quite horrifying, and has caused me to reflect on our LAA work in Dudley. What I can remember most distinctly is frustration, with rooms full of officers who talked about things like ‘joining things up’, ‘breaking down silos’ ‘stopping the revolving door’ and who you just knew were paying little attention to what active citizens, community groups and voluntary organisations were doing and could do together with the public sector. I remember leaving a meeting feeling that I’d been invited as token voluntary sector person who would be forgotten as soon as I’d left the council offices and the paper I shared was buried under a pile of other paperwork. And what officers want all the time is data – if I could walk in these sorts of meetings with numbers and graphs I suspect they might listen a little bit. I’m glad that the Kittens are Evil conference highlighted lots of issues around use of data. And I’ll continue to not worry at all that my sector doesn’t aggregate meaningless bits of data for others to use, and I’ll actively resist attempts by officers to make that happen.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      God! those phrases! A sign of a truly diseased way of thinking.
      I was speaking with a colleague who had read this post, and he told me when our LAA was being negotiated with central government, that there was one “stretch target” that involved a bizarre form of guessing game. It was a health indicator, smoking cessation or something I forget.
      The government had some kind of mad algorithm that “told them” how many people should be in a particular area for you to aim at and be the number of the target for this indicator. Bit like the Troubled Families thing right now I am guessing. But the difference was…they wouldnt TELL you what that number was.
      The council man would say “erm.. 500?” and a week later would come from government, “no, too low” and the council man would say, “erm…700?” and this went back and forth.
      In the end he took a short-cut and rang a neighbouring council with a similar residents profile to ours who had a similar indicator but had completed their negotiations/guessing and just copied their target. Central government took it straight away.
      Yay for governement!
      Like that childrens game “Guess Who?”
      “does he wear glasses?”
      “ok, does he have a hat on?”


  2. Pingback: How to lie with statistics | thinkpurpose

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