by Rhys Andrews, James Downe, and Valeria Guarneros-Meza, Cardiff University, UK
Targets for public service improvement are frequently derided as heavy-handed, top-down mechanisms that have dysfunctional and potentially disastrous effects on organizational behaviour. Yet, there is growing statistical evidence to suggest that targets can actually prompt public organizations to deliver improved service quality and responsiveness. While much of this research on targets has focused on relatively narrow public service outcomes, such as hospital waiting times or examination results, less is known about the effectiveness of targets as a means for enhancing the impact of partnership working on social outcomes. In our article in October’s issue of Policy & Politics, we show that targets enhanced the work that Local Strategic Partnerships (LSPs) in England undertook to improve community cohesion between 2006 and 2008.
The cohesiveness of local communities has become a key theme within public policy debates across Europe. In the UK, successive governments have striven to get local agencies to deliver joined-up solutions to the challenges posed by increasing social diversity to community cohesion. One policy instrument that was applied by the last Labour government to this issue, were Local Area Agreements (LAAs) – performance contracts between central government and the LSPs held responsible for coordinating multi-agency approaches across local communities in England.
About half of the LSPs (86) in England were subject to Local Area Agreements specifying targets for desired levels of social cohesion, based on data drawn from the 2006 and 2008 Place Surveys. To evaluate the impact of these cohesion LAAs on the work of LSPs, we used statistical techniques to analyse local residents’ perceptions of how well people from different backgrounds get on in their area, supplementing this analysis with qualitative evidence drawn from LSPs with highly divergent degrees of ‘stretch’ in their target.
Our statistical analysis suggests LSPs with an LAA for social cohesion experienced a better rate of improvement in perceptions of community cohesiveness than those without, and that tougher targets resulted in even stronger improvement. To explore the story that lay behind these findings, we drew upon interviews conducted in LSPs. This research suggested that the introduction of tough LAAs for social cohesion was an important motivation behind a dramatic expansion of community development work by LSPs, and that even in those LSPs with less challenging targets, the LAA reinforced the good practice already underway in the locality.
Contrary to popular perceptions of the problems caused by target-setting, our analysis highlights that performance contracts can play an important role in enhancing partnership working. In fact, a survey of LAA co-ordinators at the time revealed that over three-quarters of them thought that targets had brought more positive change than would otherwise have been the case. At a time when concerns about community cohesiveness remain as salient as ever, the message that performance management matters for local social outcomes is an important one.