Wednesday, 17 March 2004

Can’t we be smarter?

Now that we are evaluating what we have done, how we have done it and why we did not do what we were supposed to have done, the time has also come for setting new objectives. But will the Commission set an objective for reducing objectives?

It may in any case be too late to rescue the European public service from the tyranny of objectives. The present Commission is often accused of failing to change its institutional culture. However, something did change: Commissioners and Directors-General can now afford to relax central controls, because local managers have learnt to generate their own targets, tick-sheets, action plans and vision statements. Chop off the head of the bureaucratic monster and it will reappear, fearfully multiplied, in a thousand other locations. Staff now desperately need a target for reducing the time spent on paperwork and form-filling.

Objectives are not all bad. But to use objectives as the main tool for performance improvement is an error. As Professor David Marquand puts it in his new book, Decline of the Public: "Audit is an iron cage. Professionals have to adapt their practices to the demands of the audit process […] and little by little, they begin to lose the autonomy that is fundamental to professionalism. The more professionals are audited and controlled, the less professional they are able to be."

This has two results. First, in striving to meet objectives, which were inevitably quantitative in nature, services created new problems for themselves, their staff and their users. Across the Commission, objectives threw up such unintended consequences, which themselves prompted more objectives. Ever greater armies of bureaucrats are required to monitor other employees' work more finely.

The second result was that our biggest weakness was made worse. It is in the nature of administrations that they play things by the book, referring decisions upwards or downwards, protecting their backs. The penalties for unauthorised error are greater than the rewards of inspired success. Objectives and controls make us more risk-averse, less inclined towards the sort of bold innovation and empowerment that Reform has said it seeks to encourage.

Objectives are not wrong in principle. But they have grown like weeds and have often been used not after careful thought about whether they can effectively raise performance, but merely to provide another "Commission acts" headline for the next day's newspapers.

Author: Maria Eduarda de Macedo, President of the European Commission's Local Staff Committee in Luxembourg

Source: CLP Newzzz #9, February 2004

(Adapted from a New Statesman editorial of 16 February 2004)

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