Kittens are Evil – what happened in Wales?

In the world of public policy, saying that outcomes are bad is like saying kittens are evil. It’s heresy.*

I’ll grant you, it’s not ‘hang on a minute, the earth goes round the sun’ levels of heresy. Nor have I nailed pieces of parchment to the doors of Downing Street (although, there’s an idea…). All I’ve done is to say that “outcomes” can’t be used as a way to effectively manage the performance of people who deliver social policy interventions. It doesn’t work. And, worse, it forces good people to lie about what they do.

There is emerging evidence in the media (including the Guardian, Daily Record, Radio 5 and File on 4) that outcome based approaches (OBAs) are subject to organisations ‘gaming’ the system. The reports suggest that service providers (from all sectors) are falsifying data in a number of ways (including the falsification of signatures on training registers and encouraging the unemployed to become self-employed thereby removing them from the unemployed statistics).

 The organisations involved are clearly working under the impression that the benefits of meeting the specified ‘outcomes’ (and therefore getting paid) outweigh the risks of getting caught. This behaviour is so widespread as to suggest that it is systemic and therefore endemic in the ways in which public services are being contracted and delivered.

I’ve been talking about the findings of my research into Outcomes-Based Performance Management at ‘Kittens are Evil’ conferences, which we started in Newcastle upon Tyne. We started in Manchester, where we focussed on Payment by Results. Most recently, we went to Powys, in Wales, where we focussed on the Results-Based Accountability™ systems adopted by the Welsh administration.

We began by looking at the problems with the underlying theory of Outcomes-Based Performance Management. Firstly,  that “outcomes” aren’t actually measuring impact in people’s lives – they’re not outcomes at all. And secondly, that outcomes aren’t created by organisations or programmes, they’re the emergent properties of complex systems, which means you can’t hold people, or organisations or programmes accountable for ‘delivering’ them – you’re asking people to be accountable for things they can’t control.

We then looked at all the evidence of what happens when people try to implement this flawed theory. Outcomes-Based Performance Management has been shown to distort organisational priorities, forcing managers to game the system in order to appear to be doing a good job. Further, it undermines frontline practice by making workers focus on achieving targets, rather than building relationships with people and helping them with the problems they actually have.

The Welsh context is very interesting, because there are lots of people inspired by the Vanguard approach who are doing things differently. Rick Wilson, Chief Executive of  the Community Lives Consortium described how they’ve reworked their service to focus on the genuine needs of adults with disabilities, by abandoning the paperwork associated with personal planning and simply capturing people’s stories during their day to day activities. They’ve made a better, cheaper service by doing so.

North Wales Police vividly described how a target-culture had prevented them from doing a good job, and how they’ve re-organised to put expertise and the use of professional judgement back on the frontline.

The Supporting People Team at Powys County Council presented data to show how their relentless focus on helping people to get back on an even keel is reducing demand on their own service and on other public services. 

 Monmouthshire Social Care and Health Services showed what was possible when you abandon the nonsense of tick-box outcomes, and genuinely focus on the needs of the people who present to your service.

The clear picture that emerged from all the afternoon’s case studies was that in order to genuinely create outcomes, you need to abandon Outcome-Based Performance Management, inspire frontline professionals with  an authentic  purpose, then support and trust them to use their judgement.

Measure the impact you make, but use it to learn, not to make yourself accountable to others.

Accountability is a myth. It’s a comforting lie used by leaders to reassure themselves that they are making a difference. This is the paradox of Outcomes-Based Performance Management. The more you try and make people accountable for delivering a particular set of results, the worse results they will actually deliver for people on the ground. (Although, you’ll never know that as a leader, because all the data will be telling you the story you want to hear).

The truth about kittens and their evil ways spreads.

For more information about the problems with Outcomes-Based Performance Management, and Payment by Results in particular, visit 

The next Kittens are Evil events are in Fareham on 30 September and London on 28 October. More information can be found on

My paper on Outcomes-Based Performance Management can be accessed here:

It has been downloaded over 1,000 times, and is the most downloaded in the journal’s history.

By Toby Lowe, Visiting Fellow of KITE.

Twitter: @tobyjlowe

*And the truth is, it’s not that outcomes are bad – how could helping someone achieve something positive in their lives be bad? It’s when “outcomes” are used as a performance management tool – like in Payment by Results, or Results Based Accountability ™ – that the problems arise. 



Failure of strategy

The failure of strategy has led to an era of fiscal, institutional, and legitimacy crisis with major moral tensions.

Five years after the financial crisis hit, almost destroying the UK banking system, we continue to try to understand the factors that contributed to the disaster. This was a disaster that, as the world knows, overwhelmed the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS to the extent that UK taxpayers are still majority owners of these banks (HBOS having been taken over by Lloyds).

The UK public may well be puzzled as to how the disaster happened and who, apart from the publically scapegoated and dishonoured ‘Sir’ Fred Goodwin, is responsible for its occurrence. 

This month (April 2013) has seen the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards produce a report in a bid to continue to try and unravel what happened when private loss was made a public debt, and we slipped into a recession. 

The Commission has been set up to consider and report on:
• professional standards and culture of the UK banking sector, taking account of regulatory and competition investigations into the LIBOR rate-setting process
• lessons to be learned about corporate governance, transparency and conflicts of interest, and their implications for regulation and Government policy
The report on HBOS is refreshingly willing to name names, and allocate blame to the leaders of HBOS at the time of the crash, naming in particular Sir James Crosby, Andy Hornby, and Lord Stephenson.

The (formerly) highly paid senior bankers quoted in the report continue to claim that the crisis was a sort of unforeseeable natural disaster (‘tsunami’ is a term used on a number of occasions). This report and the written and oral testimony collected by The Commission provides invaluable evidence of individual, group, and institutional dysfunction.

In particular, the main issues that emerge from the report are (1) that HBOS was doomed irrespective of the financial crisis; (2) the bank’s ‘retail culture’ played a role in perverting the aims of the bank as a customer service organisation, (3) that the HBOS board lacked banking, rather than retail, experience, and was (4)  unwilling or unable to address issues of existential risk that were undermining the bank, even when brought to the board’s attention by a whistleblower.

The report raises questions for practising managers and for business school academics concerning how managers can manage large and complex organisations.

Hopefully this report will contribute to another lesson: how we teach future business leaders to sufficiently analyse corporate issues with responsibility and ethical practice. 

Dr Ron Kerr,  lecturer in Organisation Studies at Newcastle University Business School.