Many years ago, on some management course or other, I remember the lecturer stressing that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. As a general rule, it has considerable merit – how can you ever know whether you’re progressing towards a goal if you can’t somehow quantify that progress? And as anyone subject to any sort of annual performance review will know, all targets are supposed to be SMART, where the M stands for measurable. It struck me at the time, however, that there was something missing from this simplistic formulation, because the route selected to arrive at the goal is as important – and sometimes more important – than the goal itself. Concentration on the measurability of progress leads to a target-chasing culture which can, and frequently does, ignore the wider needs of the organisation, its clients, and the people who work within it.
I found myself wondering yesterday whether those senior officials in the Home Office or its agencies who created the local targets of which their bosses were completely unaware (allegedly) for deportations had been on a similar course, but without applying any critical reasoning to the bald statement about the need for measurability. What they seem to have done, in effect, is to take the overall policy handed down by their political masters (we must get immigration down, and we must deport illegals, and we will do so by creating a hostile environment for them) and turned that into performance targets for staff, following the standard SMART rules. And, with their annual reviews decided on the basis of achieving the targets they were given, those staff have chased the targets relentlessly. The staff have attempted to do what they were told was expected of them, and left wider considerations about the impact on those being pursued for deportation and the image and perception of their department to those on higher pay grades.
Now, as it happens, I disagree with the overall policy in principle, but even assuming that the policy itself was a sensible and desirable one, those who promoted it – basically May and Rudd – cannot simply absolve themselves of all responsibility, even it is entirely true that it was the senior officials who turned that policy into cold impersonal targets; not least because those at the very top are, and must always be, held responsible for the culture under which the organisation operates. And what is clear, surely, by now is that they didn’t really care about the culture; they were completely obsessed with achieving the desired outcomes. I will, though, also repeat a point made previously: those senior officials who took it upon themselves to implement a system of targets as a means of implementing the policy handed down to them cannot simply be absolved of their responsibility for dehumanising people by turning them into numbers.
There is also a wider political issue as well, which goes way beyond May and Rudd. I can’t help but wonder whether the unfolding debacle around the Home Office’s attempts to deport more people, using an approach which appals many of us, might nevertheless be playing well amongst one of the Tories’ key target audiences. All of this has, after all, come about because politicians have been keen to chase the votes of those opposed to immigration by being tough on immigrants. An anti-immigrant culture has developed and spread, actively encouraged by politicians (and Labour have been as bad – just remember Ed Miliband’s famous mug) in which it is perfectly possible that many will see the efforts of May and Rudd to be praiseworthy rather than contemptible. Decades of anti-immigration rhetoric will not be overturned by a few cosmetic changes to policy, nor even by the resignations of May, Rudd, and the top officials involved. The required cultural shift in political debate is much greater than that.