Targets And Taking Out The Trash In A Total Quality Management Setting Part 2 #GE2015 #RaceForNumber10

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You may have noticed, from the first instalment of this series, that Royal Mail set no target by which they wished to reduce non attendance due to ill health.  If you decide that you have a problem then it is of fundamental importance to know where you are to set a baseline against which you may measure the effectiveness of any action you undertake.  Targets are an irrelevance if adopting such an approach.  In fact, they may hinder an organisation from achieving sustainable, lasting change.

I attended numerous meetings with all sorts of organisations when I was part of the team implementing New Deal in Birmingham.  One particular meeting sticks in my mind for all the wrong reasons.  I was there, with representatives of Groundwork Birmingham, to discuss with staff from Birmingham City Council about how we might use the Environmental Taskforce Option of New Deal to set up an Intermediate Labour Market model to increase the level of recycling in Birmingham.  Groundwork had access to European funding so that the Option would pay a wage as opposed to Jobseeker’s Allowance with an additional payment on top of £15 per week (if memory serves correctly) and travel expenses.  We just needed buy in from the Council as to the approach being proposed.  I was principally there to explain how New Deal worked and what we would accept (and not accept) in terms of work placements.  I also made clear that each individual placement category would require prior approval from the Employment Service before positions falling within it might be made available to eligible jobseekers.  Specifically, no canal side clearance type jobs would be approved, that one day a week had to be set aside for NVQ Level 2 or equivalent training and that half of another day must be used to provide help with looking for work.

Birmingham City Council was a member of the Birmingham New Deal Partnership Board and so we assumed that the idea would be accepted in principle.  I think we just envisaged overcoming a bit of resistance to the idea before explaining how the project might work with the Council’s support.  I say resistance, because senior Councillors signing up to New Deal was no guarantee that officers would necessarily fall into line and enthusiastically grasp the opportunities on offer.  Ten years or so later, I was to have problems explaining to Birmingham City Council officers that I was really offering them free (well, relatively free) money to add extra space to Children’s Centres.  Any way, the Environmental Health people were not opposed to the ILM.  They could just not see the point of it.  True, they were not meeting the recycling target at that point, but with a tweak here and a tweak there they were confident that they would soon do so.  There was clearly no desire to exceed the target set.  Moreover, no more waste would seemingly be recycled if the  target was met on their terms.

I said I was principally there for official reasons, but, in no particular order, I was (and I am) a resident of Birmingham, I remain very concerned to see ever greater recycling and, as a Labour party member I was keen to see New Deal succeed.  New Deal would partly deliver its promise through offering a wide range of opportunities from which jobseekers might choose.  I have to say I was aghast at the complacency of the local government officers as was the Councillor (and a friend of mine) sitting opposite me.  Neither of us could do anything to get them to budge and neither could Groundwork who were, at least, better prepared to address the objections they thought would arise.  The target had trumped any attempt at experimentation to see if recycling might be increased and/or improved, particularly in areas of Birmingham suffering from above average deprivation.  I am struggling to remember if that project ever moved past that meeting.  Thankfully, other parts of the Council were more responsive to similar ideas.  Although one very successful project that deserved core funding after it had proved itself no longer exists.  I bet there is many a visitor to Birmingham to this day who would appreciate the help of roving tourist information staff.

The fact that they could tweak (or fiddle) their way to meeting the target suggests that it was of no practical value.  There is a tendency in such situations to say we will reduce x by y%.  However, if x falls and recycling activity stays the same then y as a % of x increases (and so we may meet our target without doing anything more than before).  The objective we should be seeking to achieve is that ever more waste than now is recycled.  Consequently, we are fixing no limit on the percentage of waste to be recycled, but we are setting today’s level of recycling and overall amount of waste as baselines (more about them on another occasion) against which to assess future performance.  Ideally, though, we want to reduce first, reuse second and then recycle before resorting to incineration or landfill.  Councils have more ability to increase recycling than they have to reduce consumption and encourage greater reuse.  Their baseline should be the current levels of recycling with the direction of travel being to reduce it, alongside working with others to lower wasteful consumption and increase reuse.  With regards to the latter, one person’s waste product is another’s raw material so where there is muck there is brass, even in the 21st Century.

A target to simply increase recycling by a certain percentage is no way to achieve something of which most people want to see more.  There are thankfully few refuseniks, enthusiastic for ever more Council tips, these days.  Most of them though do seem to be here in Birmingham fighting a rearguard action against the replacement of black bags with wheelie bins.  Please, do not ask me to expand on that particular story!  I hope you have noticed that I have not said how we should reduce, reuse and recycle.  Individual communities should design ways to do that themselves with appropriate input from waste experts.  Honestly, it does not pain me to say that consultants who specialise in particular areas are good people to have on hand as critical friends and for advice and support (but rarely pre-packaged solutions), despite the things I say about the generalists and the Big Four (may their profits be blighted)!

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