Are Payment by Results and Management Targets dangerously idiotic?

Occasionally one reads an article and feels compelled to respond. Today was such a day when I read Payment by Results – a ‘dangerous idiocy’ that makes staff tell lies by Toby Lowe. It’s not the criticism of PbR or targets I dislike, there are plenty of concerns that need to be thought through in that area and I start on some of those in the next few blogs. It’s the lack of presented alternative that bothers me. Payment by results gets muddled up with management targets, with a sense that if all of this went away and you relied on frontline staff to do the right thing all would be well. This sentimental harking to a golden age before management and targets is magical thinking.

There are two reasons it is dangerous. Firstly it fails to acknowledge that we live in a resource constrained system. We don’t have infinite money, so we have to make choices. Choices exclude and we have to have some way of making them and some people to make them. Managers are typically rationers. Not an easy or popular task so one that we should support rather than seek to undermine.

Secondly it presumes that front-line staff invariably does the right thing by service users, patients or customers. While I have huge regard for people’s basic ethic to each other, moral compass and sense of decency, this is a sentimental and paternalistic view that we can’t run our public services on. Professions and professionals get inured and set into defined practice. When working for a foundation, I had the disturbing role of going round orphanages in Romania being told by professionals within them why they should stay open and how the alternatives we were proposing were dangerous. In South Africa there were separate cases of wards filled with crying abandoned AIDS orphans and nurses sitting in their station beside them doing nothing. It requires management at certain times to ensure focus on patients, end users, to ensure a lack of institutional bias, to ensure people aren’t forgotten or lost.

So the article attempts to unseat the unpopular but important act of putting in place targets and management to benefit service users. In the end, most of us don’t like to be managed. Few people like being told what to do, so it is always tempting to bash management. But services need to be adapted and resources need to be allocated. Better decisions are taken on the basis of data, not anecdote, intuition and here say. So information needs to be gleaned, measures used and targets set.

There are two serious issues that need to be thought through. What are good management vs bad management targets, and when if ever does PbR help? I will address those in my next blogs.



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