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The term ‘dramatic’ loses some of its meaning when deployed in a newspaper. That said, the rising number of patients reported to be waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment can only be described as such. In just the short period since May 2010, this figure is said to have risen by 40 per cent for inpatients and as high as 65 per cent for outpatients. Against the backdrop of these figures, it was reported this week that the Government had backtracked somewhat on its ambition to phase out central targets. Indeed, the turn of events went so far as prompting them to establish an entirely new one.

This then begs the question: can we really do without targets? While it would appear that most people would rather work according to what they see as quality over quantity – particularly when targets are seen as being set on an arbitrary whim by distant bureaucrats – it’s also the case that targets can be a chief motivational tool for many, and perhaps even (I dare say it) a potential source of comfort and well-being.

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, two distinguished managerial theorists Steven Kramer and Teresa Amabile discuss their notion of the ‘progress principle’; that the single most important thing for being engaged at work is the feeling of progress. To illustrate their point, they draw upon the video game as an analogy for the work place. By using things like ‘badges’ and progress bars, software designers are able to create a sense of accomplishment and keep people hooked on the game. In the same way, Kramer and Amabile argue that managers can maintain engagement in the work place by periodically celebrating progress and finding small wins even in setbacks.

Targets are arguably one means by which this kind of progress can be made explicit and visible. Without them, we have to rely upon an in-built sense of achievement, which few of us could say is consistent, or on narrative accounts of progress that are seldom memorable or salient. To be sure, people can miss targets. But to return to Kramer and Amabile’s analogy, people can also fail at games. What is important is that they are not deterred from trying again.

With targets we have something which instils some semblance of a mission, as well as a clear indicator as to whether it has been achieved or not. It may sound uncomfortable, and perhaps even against our better judgement, but technocratic initiatives like targets are occasionally some of our best tools for improving efficiency, at least in the short-term. While it is true that the RSA is proposing a more adaptive, long-term approach to tackling problems (look out for an upcoming Social Brain report on this), we also have to recognise the immediacy of certain policy challenges and the need for cost-effective quick-wins that are effectively able to grapple with these.

With that in mind, perhaps we shouldn’t write off new managerialism just yet…


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