Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office reported today that joint targets, and the joint working needed to achieve them, can help to improve the delivery of government objectives. Departments often need to work across organisational boundaries to work most effectively. But achieving joint targets can present particular challenges, especially in the international arena. Setting objectives and priorities, and developing a common understanding between each department about how success can be best achieved is not straightforward. The NAO report, which focuses on a number of key targets in the field of international development, found that the level of detailed analysis of the factors which influence success, the number of formal joint plans, and the degree of change in working practices to accompany these joint targets varied between Departments. It also identifies characteristics of effective joint working with relevance to the achievement of joint targets more generally.
20% of the government’s targets for 2005-08 are shared between more than one Department. This is an increase on the 10% of previous rounds. This reflects an increasing recognition that the complex challenges facing government need to be met by united action. Joint targets bring a shared understanding between departments and, particularly in the international field, signal the UK’s intent and commitment.
Progress against the targets examined has been mixed. In December 2004, Departments reported on eight aspects of performance: progress was ‘on course’ for five; on one ‘slippage’ had occurred; and in two it was ‘too early to say’. The report also found that there was inconsistent reporting of progress against the targets. For example, on debt relief for the period of 2001-04 one Department reported the target had been met whilst another reported ‘slippage’ against the same target.
The NAO found some areas for improvement. Many of the targets examined were not supported by a detailed joint examination of the causes and factors which would lead to the desired outcomes. Plans generally did not set out the programme and administrative resources to be used and improvements were needed in the monitoring of resource use to ensure consistency across Departments. While joint targets have stimulated greater co-operation, those examined have not lead to a significant change in working arrangements.
In some cases, the targets themselves could have been better defined. The target for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals is very broad, encompassing almost any action the United Kingdom might want to take to contribute to achieving the Goals. By comparison, the target for debt relief was narrowly defined. Success is defined in terms of countries’ progress within the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative although progress could be achieved without realising a permanent exit from unsustainable debt.