by Pietro Micheli (Guest Author)

Two weeks ago, a report produced by the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary showed that more than 800,000 of all reported crimes (one in five) go unrecorded each year. As the report stated, “inspectors were told that pressure to hit crime reduction targets imposed by middle managers had the effect of limiting the number of crimes logged.”[1]

Although disturbing, it is not the first time this occurs. In 2013, for example, an investigation by the UK’s House of Commons revealed that recorded crimes had often been downgraded, and crime victims had routinely been asked not to file complaints[2]. Similar instances of hiding figures and false reporting are unfortunately quite common, not just in police forces, but also in hospitals, social services, as well as in private companies, for example in banks. In the case of police forces, political pressure to reduce crime statistics, often exerted through performance targets, has resulted in crimes being downgraded to less serious offences or even in their “disappearance”.

Why is this happening? Our research shows that performance measures and targets can lead to gaming and, sometimes, cheating, if the following conditions exist:

  • High performance measurement pressure: measures and targets are given great emphasis and treated as ‘true’ reflections of performance;
  • Focus on whether performance targets have been achieved rather than on how they have been achieved;
  • Competitive professional culture and climate, e.g., a culture of “department wars” and intense competition among colleagues.

Such conditions are not inevitable, however. Nor are gaming and cheating.

So what could we do?

First, instead of treating measures and targets are control tools, they could be used as feedback and learning mechanisms, so that reviews of performance could be genuinely used to understand and improve performance, rather than to sweep failures under the carpet.

Second, the focus should be on how results are achieved, rather just on what was achieved. This also entails gaining a real understanding performance at the frontline, not just looking at endless dashboards on the screen or wading through thick reports.

Finally, while internal competition is not necessarily negative, the use of rewards and sanctions – often at individual level – often generates perverse consequences, such as the ones observed in UK police forces.

In essence, the measurement and management of performance should be aimed at understanding and improving the way an organization operates and the result it achieves, not to identify stars and culprits. Otherwise, as Warren Buffett, the legendary American investor, put it: “managers that always promise to ‘make the numbers’ will at some point be tempted to make up the numbers”.

Dr Pietro Micheli is Associate Professor of Organisational Performance at Warwick Business School and Visiting Fellow at Cranfield Centre for Business Performance. For more examples of the unintended consequences of performance measurement see his book “Measurement madness – Recognizing and Avoiding the Pitfalls of Performance Measurement” written with Dr Dina Gray, Visiting Fellow, and Dr Andrey Pavlov, Lecturer, Cranfield Centre for Business Performance.

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[1] BBC website, 18th November 2014 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-30081682

[2] Barrett, D. (2013) Police chief admits crime figures “adjusted”, The Daily Telegraph, 21 November, 1, National 8.

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