108 – Setting policy targets

Targets to be achieved from public investments often seem to be determined by judgment and a fair bit of guesswork. Is there a better way?

Targets for policy investments are often set in a wishy washy way. Here is an example. Under the regionalised natural resource management (NRM) programs in Australia, the regional bodies that are responsible for planning and prioritising investments were required by the government to establish “aspirational” targets for NRM outcomes. This process injected a huge dose of unreality into the planning process – the aspirations expressed are vastly different from feasible realities in most cases.

There was also a requirement to set “Resource Condition Targets” (RCT), which were meant to be more realistic and achievable. However there was no requirement that these RCTs be determined rigorously. With few exceptions, they were not backed up by good analysis, and in truth, most of the RCTs in “accredited” regional strategies are not achievable.

The setting of targets based on wishful thinking does have its defenders. I’ve heard people argue that it will stretch people, and give them something to aspire to. However I think it is more likely to make people disheartened and cynical, and it makes realistic monitoring and evaluation impossible. The process seems to have encouraged monitoring and evaluation of activities, rather than outcomes. Given the current mindset around targets, it is not surprising that the regional NRM bodies and governments alike have struggled to get a good monitoring and evaluation process happening.

I think a better approach is to choose targets as the last stage of the planning process. I’d proceed as follows:

  • For a range of possible NRM investments, estimate their costs and identify their likely NRM outcomes.
  • Select those investments that give the best aggregate NRM outcomes for the available budget.
  • Set the targets to equal the most likely NRM outcomes that were identified in the first step for those investments that have been selected for funding.

(The approach assumes that the best available investments are actually worth funding. This may not always be true.)

Note that targets do not drive the process in any way. They are an output of the process.

This approach to planning and target setting flows directly into a good monitoring and evaluation process. The targets are realistic, and failure to meet them can be understood in the context of the analysis that was done to select the targets. Monitoring and evaluation would include updating the analysis and the targets over time as new information emerges. In other words, monitoring and evaluation looks a lot like the original planning process, but adapted to account for new information.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia