Targets in public policy: disciplining or signaling?
Girl playing with jump rope surrounded by other young children between tents in a settlement

By Christina Boswell

Targets have become a popular tool for galvanising improvements to public services across OECD countries. But targets also have an important signalling function: they can be adopted to signal a commitment to, or underscore achievement of, a range of political or organisational goals. In a new paper, prepared as part of the Politics of Monitoring project, I explore this dual role, looking at the use of targets in UK immigration and asylum policy. The paper, presented at the UK Political Studies Association conference in April, focuses on the case of targets on immigration and asylum adopted between 2000-2010 as part of the government’s Public Service Agreements (PSA). The paper argues that:

1. The initial process-based PSA targets on asylum largely failed to function as effective political signals – with the result that senior political figures instead created new, more publicly digestible targets outside of the PSA system. This seems to reflect a wider problem with attempts to signal performance through technocratic tools of measurement. Especially in policy areas characterised by more populist narratives, such as immigration and asylum, anecdote and focusing events may be more powerful in constructing policy problems and government performance than dry data and figures.

2. Where political leaders did set more high profile targets, this created a number of political risks. Ambitious “stretch” targets, in particular, exposed them to the danger of being seen to fail. Even where the government was able to meet targets, it found that it was not politically rewarded. There was no “air time” for broadcasting news about government achievement of targets. Arguably, this asymmetry in the political capital accruing from public targets was one of the reasons Labour retreated from the use of targets as a signalling device in the late 2000s (though, of course, their successors embraced a new immigration target with zeal!).

3. The attempt to conjoin signalling and disciplining functions created a number of organisational problems. This was especially the case where (non-PSA) politically driven targets were set in a top-down manner, without due regard to organisational capacity. While such top-down interventions certainly galvanised action, the changes they effected were arguably short-term, highly localised, and tended to produce a number of distortions and forms of gaming.

You can find out more about the Politics of Monitoring project here.

Cover Picture: Ahmed Akacha from Pexels.