Ctrl, Alt, Delete, Pirate

by Alex Barker

I write this blog from London at the end of January 2021 in what feels like a moment of extreme political failure. With one of the highest death tolls in Europe, the UK public is left in little doubt that we are feeling the direct effects of poor leadership. 

This should be a moment of reckoning, but it feels inevitable that over the coming months we’ll be subjected to a propaganda campaign around building back better, moving on with our lives, and other wartime jargon. There may be a public inquiry, but does anyone expect it to change anything?  

I say this not to depress you with the news, but to set the scene. We do require and deserve something ‘better’ but it isn’t going to happen via inquiries, committees or vague campaign slogans that originate from the same thinking that caused the problems. What we need is a far bigger overhaul of how public services and institutions operate at the root. The moment requires that we finally put something more radical on the table, something that might initially make people squirm. 

Myself and a few other pirates in the network got together recently to think more about this. How do we ensure that Covid creates the changes we want, and why, in our most revered institutions, do you get smart and well intentioned people doing more harm than good? 

The first answer people usually offer is ‘it’s the culture.’ But what enables poor culture to prevail? What’s propping it up? 

After some covert enquiries and further plotting, we arrived at an answer: targets. 

Rigid measurements, milestones, and KPIs. 

They’re not the only cause, but they are a key driver of poor culture. So then we came up with a proposition: what if we scrapped all the public sector targets currently in place, and started from scratch?

As the Rights Studio challenges us to ask better, bolder questions, this feels like the kind of radical but tangible initiative we need. 

Targets do not achieve what they set out to. This short video by alternative consultancy Vanguard offers a couple of reasons why that happens. It explains that while targets incentivise people to do something, they detract from the bigger picture goal, or they sort one problem, but make another worse because you’re working in silos. There are numerous examples of how targets result in people simply gaming the system so that they can ‘win’ at whatever cost, which is reinforced by deliberate individual incentives for meeting targets (such as a proposal to offer healthcare staff £55 per dementia diagnosis)

And even if you do manage to ‘win,’ a target driven environment generally causes low morale. When they’re used to reward and punish, you get a culture of fear and little to no trust that people will do their job unless there is a perceived ‘finish line.’ If we are to talk about the ills of command and control leadership, then targets are their best weapons.

Some might argue that targets create greater accountability, or a way to ensure standards and consistency across a big organisation. But here lies the clue as to where we are going with this. The target is just a means, not an end. The end is the condition we’re trying to create, and narrow targets often mean you lose sight of what really matters. 

This is not just a UK issue, but a global one, from UN international agreements to international non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Target culture is an efficiency echochamber loved by the global elite.

The question – should we scrap all public sector targets – is being put forward not because we think it’s the right answer, not even close. But because we need to start somewhere off the edges of our current austerity bitten death ridden map. 

Half the problem is that we’re not even asking questions, and there are many good ones to be asked: 

  • If we let go of most targets, what could fill the gap? 
  • What else might create accountability and consistency?
  • What does motivate your people? (and how do we deal with variation?)
  • Are there any genuinely helpful targets?

It is the starting point of any pirate to hold long held rules and norms up to the light and examine them, with the view to always stepping into the murky waters of reinvention. 

We want to invite people to be part of this conversation, public sector or otherwise. What are your experiences of working in target driven environments? Where is the space for experimentation with this? And more importantly, what’s stopping us from doing this? 

Targets are just rules we could break and rewrite, if we felt there was collective permission to do so. The blame for why target culture prevails doesn’t sit with any one person, it speaks to the fact that we are the system, and we can choose to turn the tide.

Alex Barker leads the Be More Pirate community and wears many hats as a freelance writer, facilitator and speaker. Before teaming up with Sam Conniff to develop the Be More Pirate book into a movement, she was Communications Manager at the Royal Society of the Arts in the UK. She has also worked as freelance for author and adventurer Alastair Humphreys, and with writer and activist Onjali Q. Rauf on domestic violence issues.