Process Vs Targets

Would you want an innocent person to face a trial presided over by a judge who gets a bonus based on how close his court gets to an 85% conviction rate? Or a guilty person to face a trial with the Judge having a target conviction rate of 25%?

Judges do not get such bonuses.   But the public sector is packed with people given vast discretion, and the equivalent of a bonus linked to conviction rates /  the average sentence that they hand out

Planning departments have targets/political mandates,  which means not necessarily only approving applications that meet the published criteria, or only rejecting applications that do not.

Welfare departments have targets for the number of people they help, which means finding excuses (often flimsy) to say no to supplicants who desperately need help.

Immigration departments had a target for net migration, which meant giving weight to factors other than the strength of the case measured against the published rules.

Education departments have special educational needs constraints, which mean that, instead of just assessing a child’s needs, they adopt a strategy of ‘initial refusal’, almost however strong the case, in the hope that parents will give up, and safe in the knowledge that even if the parents persist, it will delay the cost of special provision by more than a year (the tribunal process is not quick)

Social Services departments have targets for adoptions which means that, when encountering a troubled parent with an ‘easy-to-get-adopted child’ (ie a cute young baby, rather than a surly teenager), the all too easily forget that their first job is to support parents to care for their own children.  Adoption, rather than being a last resort to be used only when a loving parent has been given every possible support to try and make a success of their own parenting, comes to be a first resort.

NHS trusts have budgetary constraints that mean they ration care, sometimes by long queues (A&E), sometimes by waiting lists, and, in the case of the old, by pretending that there are no medical solutions in cases where there are solutions but they would be expensive.

The problems are not the fault of civil servants.  They just do the best they can, in often difficult & strained circumstances, based on the framework and incentive structure into which they have been placed by politicians

Politicians place them in these difficult positions, because it is easier than setting out, and defending in public, the objective rules that, when fairly applied, would yield the target results.

In 1965 a ‘temporary’ Speed limit of 70mph was applied on UK motorways.  At the time a Mk1 Mini had a top speed of 72 mph for those that kept accelerating for much longer than the 27 seconds it took to reach 60mph.  Slowing down from 70mph using the mini’s drum brakes would have taken a while.  There were no seatbelts, headrests to guard against whiplash, airbags, or ABS.    Going 125mph on a motorway today is probably safer than pushing a mini to 70mph in 1965, but politicians don’t want to seem reckless, so, despite almost 60 years of safety improvements, we still have a 70mph limit.  But it is not enforced consistently.   When Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham told his official driver never to break the speed limit, on the very good grounds that members of the cabinet should live by the same laws as everyone else.    He stood out at the time, and still does, because ministers in government cars consider themselves too important to observe the speed limits that apply to the rest of us.    And its not just ministers that get away with it.

It is perfectly safe to drive at 85mph on a dry uncongested motorway in good light.  Politicians know this, police know this, and we know this.  The law should be changed to reflect this.   But politicians think they would look irresponsible if they raised the speed limit.  So they don’t.   Some argue that the environment and fuel economy are justifications for keeping speed limits, but that would suggest exempting Teslas recharged with renewable-generated electricity, and would also suggest that ministers had a special duty to observe the law and set a good example, rather than awarding themselves an exemption.

On many motorways driving at up to 85mph is de facto ok, even for those of us that are not ministers, but the police reserve the right to prosecute anyone going more than 70mph.  Selective non-enforcement seems attractive when the underlying law is silly, but it comes at a price of veering away from the ideal of applying the law evenly without fear or favour.

Because we don’t have rules that, when applied fairly, produce the required result, those at the sharp end have a lot of discretion.  That discretion means that one can have identical cases receiving very different outcomes.   The system will favour the charming, the beautiful, the eloquent, the tenacious, those that represented by the best lawyers, those with whom the person with discretion has a bond in common such as the same school, university, freemasonry, church/ synagogue/ mosque/ temple, favoured sports team, or political party.

The policing of motorway speed limits is not the biggest issue here.  But the allocation of educational funding, visas, planning permission, and healthcare are pretty significant.

For the country to be one in which we have the rule of law, rather than the rule of men (/women),  those that administer the law can be given targets regarding  the speed/efficiency with which they handle their work, but, beyond that, to measure and reward anything other than scrupulously fair application of the rules is an invitation to dystopia.

At the moment councils claim that they care for the destitute by eg providing accommodation and subsistence for single mothers with children who have nowhere to go and no income.  But lets say that such support costs £1,000 a month for accommodation and £400 a month for food etc: a £16,800 pa cost.  With a budget of £1.7 million per year, that local authority can support 101 single parent families.  Politicians make the commitment to provide support, and set the level at which support will be given.  In effect they tell the case officers who meet desperate supplicants that there are 101 tickets to safety that can be handed out, and that if there are more than 101 deserving cases, their job is to pretend that the extra cases are not deserving.   If there are 201 deserving cases, the ‘100 extra’ are not to be given even the acknowledgment that they are deserving, far less an apology that ‘the cupboard is bare’. Instead we have the depressing and inhumane approach of pretending that there is help available, if only the wretched supplicant were genuinely in need.   Councils often tell destitute mothers that they can’t house them, but will take the children in to care (which is far far more expensive than accommodating the mother with her children, but comes from a different department’s budget, and also serves to frighten the mother into leaving and sleeping with her children on the streets).

Resources are finite, and that needs to be acknowledged.  In the scenario above, there are three possible ways to proceed.  We could say that there is only £1.7 million, and that as there are 201 qualifying families, each will get only £500 a month for accommodation and £200for food (the politicians admitting that the threshold of support is one of wretched subsistence).  We could say that as there are 201 qualifying families and £16,800 pa is the minimum we are prepared to say is reasonable, we are allocating funding of £3.4 million (the politicians admitting the knock on impact this will have elsewhere, either on expenditure or taxes).    We could say that there is only £1.7million, and we don’t think that giving under £16,800pa will give a reasonable quality of life, so we will award that support to the first 101 families to apply, or the most wretched & desperate 101 families to apply (the politicians admitting that they hope that the other 100 families will go and try their luck in another area, or disappear and die, or whatever it is that they think is most appropriate). The three alternatives here have the advantage of honesty, and of giving jobs that are do-able to the officials on the front line.    And of forcing the politicians to admit the choices that they are making on our behalf.

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