Amber Rudd Resigns and Thoughts on Savings Targets

Amber Rudd resigned as the British Home Secretary this week because she misled Parliament over how much she knew (or should have known) about the Home Office targets for removing illegal immigrants from the UK. But if the UK public had not felt so outraged about the way the Home Office was going about its work, it is unlikely that matters would have got so far.

The treatment of the “Windrush generation” – people who came to the UK 50 or 60 years ago from the British West Indies, and had worked here as citizens for decades – was so blatantly unfair, crass and cruel that it really made the whole issue hit the headlines.

Now if you had asked most British citizens whether a policy to remove illegal immigrants from the country was conceptually fair a few weeks ago, the clear majority would have said “yes”. If you had pressed them for what sort of people they would have expected to see removed as “illegals” you might have got answers like this (and apologies for stereotyping, but I’m sure this is exactly what you would have heard).

“Potential terrorists from Syria and Afghanistan coming to kill us”.

“Those Nigerian fraudsters who send all those emails …”

“Extended families from rural Pakistan, don’t even bother to learn English when they get here.”

You get the picture. I suspect virtually none would have said, “that lovely guy Jim from Barbados and his wife who have lived on the corner for 40 years, I think he used to be a bus driver, ended up a manager with London Transport, his wife does a lot for the church …”

So why was Jim targeted? This is where we come back to something of procurement relevance, you may be relieved to know. It’s because there were targets, and if we know one thing, it is that those on the receiving end of targets to deliver against instinctively look for the simplest and quickest way of meeting them. Like water flowing downhill, going over, under or around obstacles, but always heading down, effort will inexorably follow the route that gets to the target as easily as possible.

Once Home Office officials were given these targets, that process was under way. Let’s face it, finding those young, smart Syrians was never going to be easy. Working out relationships in an extended non-English speaking family is virtually impossible. But Jim, who was in plain sight, who applied for a passport for the first time to go to Barbados for his niece’s wedding, was an easy catch. No evidence of being here for 50 years? No papers to show (in part because the Home Office disgracefully destroyed its own records)? He’s just an easy notch on the belt, one more towards the target.

And the same happens when we look at the most commonly used target in our world – the “savings target”. As soon as a CPO or category manager is burdened with a “hard target”, the metaphorical Syrian terrorist gets forgotten, and we look for our equivalent of Jim. The quick hit, the easy negotiation with a supplier in a weak position, the tweak to the component specification that our own customers might hate but hey, it saves 5% which counts towards the target. Or demand reduction – “let’s stop all training spend” – there’s a saving!

Often, we’ll get away with it. But sometimes, we suddenly realise that sales are declining, or staff are leaving, or our suppliers no longer want to work with us. Just as Rudd suddenly realised that maybe she should have got closer to just how staff were working towards these targets. Incidentally, senior officials should take some responsibility here unless they clearly pointed out what was happening with the Windrush cohort; I can’t believe Rudd would have been happy had she known exactly what was going on.

The Windrush affair has been shaming for anyone proud of being British, and sad for Rudd who is not the only one to blame by any means. But it is a salutary lesson about the dangers of targets; we’re not saying they should never be used, but always remember the danger, and think of that water flowing downhill, regardless of what damage it might be doing.



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Voices (3)

  1. RJ:

    Totally agree with this but would like to pick up on the comment that you make regarding “No papers to show (in part because the Home Office disgracefully destroyed its own records)?”
    Not that I know this to be true but in the political obfuscation that’s surrounded this matter, it seems to me that in 2007 when these papers were apparently destroyed, they were presumably many tons of paper records that had lain around gathering dust for 30-40 years because nobody had any cause to look at them. Probably someone in the HO had a target to reduce document storage costs without realising that a few years later a new Home Secretary would suddenly create a new policy that would make these documents a life and death matter for hundreds if not thousands of individuals! I’d hate to be the individual responsible for innocently authorising what must have seemed eminently sensible at the time.

  2. Dan:

    As with many things, targets make sense until human beings get involved. Then targets just distort the behaviour that they were intended to help monitor. Especially when said targets are set by politicians who have neither the professionalism or expertise to consider the consequences of setting targets.

    There’s an (undoubtedly apocryphal) story of a Soviet screw factory. Given tough targets on the number of screws to be produced, they ended up just making screws that were too tiny to be of any use. When the targets changed to a total tonnage of screws, they responded by making a few giant screws that were too big to be of any use.

  3. Trevor Black:

    Excellent observation. I realised many years ago that targets particularly in the public sector must never be trusted. Wherever there is political influence targets will be distorted and outcomes framed to ensure political advantage. The same goes for statistics. There is no branch of politics that you can say is honest and has not been corrupted.

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