The modern management obsession with targets is missing the point…

Being told to grasp the bull by the horns is usually a management metaphor for getting on with the job. In my line of work as a country vet, it’s just as likely to be a reality. A significant part of my time is spent Tuberculosis testing cattle as a subcontractor to the department of agriculture.

We will all be familiar with the concept of a having a blood test at the doctors and the sample being whisked off to a shiny white computer controlled lab. Well, my role is nothing like this. The Tb test was developed in the 1950s using the state of the art equipment available then, mainly scissors and brass callipers.  I clip two marks at precise but undefined positions on the animal’s neck I then inject within the few millimetres of skin a precise dose of tuberculin. While this is occurring the half ton of muscle that is my moving target is, of course, attempting to express its entire bowel content and several millennia of evolutions worth of fight or flight reflexes.

The test was developed as a public health and eradication program, the pubic health significance disappeared with the pasteurization of milk and true aspirations of eradication have long since evaporated as well. The test continues now only due to obligations under international trade rules.

As subcontractor, I am at the delivery end of the stick interacting with farmers who range from shroud multi millionaires to those for whom it’s a much bigger thing, a way of life preserved for generations. For years the management of this very human and animal interaction at the government’s air conditioned office end of the stick was a person whom I knew by their human name (cows previously called Daisy or Buttercup now have 13 digit numbers) and could phone or visit and discuss ongoing situations with.This person would have cut their teeth working for the department out on farms and would be well aware of the variable nature of farms farmers and animals locally. Sheep also come under their remit but there would be no pulling the wool over their eyes.

Under political pressure to move forward with eradication, DAERA came up with figures which showed that private vets found less TB on average than their own staff. This was not a surprise as their staff only test high-risk herds and within this subset are free to choose larger herds with better facilities increasing their chances further. Interestingly goats are not tested for TB not even troublesome scape goats.

The upshot of this has been the movement of management away from local offices to the land of League tables and KPIs that resides behind a computer screen. The raft of paper work that makes up the new contract and it’s many amendments were too complex for DAERA to complete alone and they called in other Government departments to aid its drafting. Having only one lifetime available to me, I have not read all the contract though I have considered printing it out and seeing if the displacement of A4 would actually float me down the Lagan.

Any queries I have are no longer to be directed to my local office. Instead, I am to direct them to an email address which will eventually redirect me to my own internal IT, legal or Health and Safety departments. As that is also me and I’m usually up to my oxter in a heifer with a twisted calf bed solutions are minimal.

As a management tool, KPIs are essential if you are to produce complex statistics and charts and progress reports for your next departmental committee meeting or review group. When you are at the coal face managing has a whole different level of complexity.I need to know that Willy John will only be able to test between boxing day and new year as that is when his daughter who is a barrister in London will be home to help.I can’t email or even phone to arrange this as at 82 he’s  hard of hearing. I have to call out unpaid and scream politely in his ear.

To meet these targets and keep our place in league tables we are having to squeeze our 1950S callipers a little less tightly to “find “ more reactors resulting in more compensation payments to farmers and more restricted herds to be retested at government expense. To get paperwork in on time for KPI targets we guess information rather than waiting on farmers or DAERA to come up with it.

Managing large public service sub contractors with tools such as KPIs might be analysed as a success on statistical charts in air conditioned offices. Ask those clients at the receiving end or employees on zero hours contracts facilitating the efficiencies and the answer may be different.

The delivery point of most services involves a very human interaction which is much more complex than any figures can record. Perhaps if your work can be contained to digital info on a computer screen then KPIs and league tables can be fairly applied. It’s ironic that those working in these very limited circumstances are the ones applying the KPIs rather than having them applied upon them.

My industry is only at the beginning of this slope others have already gone down the path of no return. Managing an ever increasing set of targets inevitably results in fewer larger subcontractors who can afford to employ their own management staff to deal with the contract. Eventually, one or two big players are left until they are large enough to sell out to a multinational, trading in their staff and clients like the cattle being tested.No doubt somebody in my industry will grasp this opportunity and make it big.

Which ever country you prefer to think we live in here, surely we are small enough to manage human interactions with humans. Do we really need an extra layer of management and shareholders sucking funding out of our public services and local businesses?

William Kinmont is the pen name of a vet in Northern Ireland. This is his first post on Slugger.