Public Sector Targets To Be Scrapped

A bonfire of government targets to ease red tape affecting schools, hospitals and town halls will be ordered tomorrow as part of a sweeping reform of public services, the Guardian can reveal.

Most of the 110 Whitehall-imposed priorities that have dominated the public sector for the past nine years will be abandoned. Andy Burnham, the chief secretary to the Treasury, is coordinating a move to end one of the defining characteristics of the Blair years by scrapping all but 30 top-down targets used to vet performance.

The targets – from raising the GCSE pass rate to reducing the fear of crime – helped to drive through the big pledges in Labour’s election manifestos. But they rankled with doctors, teachers and other public servants who felt their professional discretion had been curtailed.

In an interview with the Guardian, Mr Burnham set out a new approach, making local service chiefs responsible for setting performance objectives and answering to local communities if they are not ambitious enough. He said: “This is the opening of a new chapter…If we get this right, the style of government will feel different. We want to give out a message of more trust in public bodies.”

Under the system, there will be no more than 30 public service agreements, committing Whitehall departments to use their budgets over the three years to 2010/11 to achieve the government’s goals.

The agreements will be monitored using indicators of national and local performance. A few – such as progress towards meeting the pledge to cut maximum hospital waiting times to 18 weeks by the end of 2008 – will remain as nationally set priorities with clear measurable objectives. But most will depend on local decisions by councils, NHS primary care trusts and other service chiefs to set targets reflecting local needs and priorities.

Mr Burnham said: “We will avoid wherever possible the more crude approach of setting a one-size-fits-all target that is dropped down from on high….The direction of travel is for public services to look and feel differently in different parts of the country. We want them to face downwards and outwards, having a dialogue with their local communities rather than with the centre.”

The government will argue that the decision to stop micro-managing public services is an evolution of administrative style, not a U-turn. Mr Burnham said the targets were appropriate for the first 10 years when public services were being restored after decades of under-investment. But it was time to move on.

The era of top-down targets began in 1998 when Gordon Brown, as chancellor, started to expand public spending. The Treasury made about 600 public service agreements with Whitehall departments to ensure that the extra resources produced the necessary reforms and improvements in service.

The targets ranged from increasing the availability of childcare to reducing teenage pregnancies, improving the punctuality of rail services and improving the lives of vulnerable older people. Although the number of targets was reduced to 110 in 2004, they continued to cause concern in the public service professions.

Mr Burnham said the smaller number of targets due to be agreed at the cabinet’s public services and public expenditure committee tomorrow would be “a radical break with the past”. They would be written in plain English and the government would explore ways of making available real-time data so people could regularly monitor what progress was being made.

He added: “You won’t have to know any jargon. It should be immediately apparent what the system is trying to do. It will set out a narrative that shows we have responded and evolved. We are not saying: ‘That was Tony Blair’s system and we are dumping all that.’ Over the past two years, we have had a considered look at this, department by department.”