Over the past week, I have been astonished by the UK government response to the Covid-19 pandemic. If you want to see an object lesson in how not to develop strategy, objectives and to pass goals, the government’s activities over recent weeks is it. They have been amateurish, often shambolic and hugely dishonest.
In developing a strategy you need clear and objective goals. You need a clearly stated mission and you need good communications. All these factors have gone missing from UK government practice.
The ‘mission’ was clear, protect the public, protect the NHS from being over-run with cases, and to lower the risk of infection. The government set itself five tests that MUST be passed before lockdown could be lifted. So far it has met two of those tests and not met the other three. Yet today, at 7pm, the prime minister will announce a loosening of the lockdown. This announcement has been heavily promoted in the press, which in some parts of the country has led to increased breaking of lockdown measures. There is also a distinct disconnect between government advice and the enforcement of pandemic law. The situation is a confusing mess.
Successful strategies have the following characteristics:
- There is a clear mission and a distinct vision as to how the goal of the strategy will be achieved.
- There are over-arching goals
- There are incremental objectives which must be met for the goal to be achieved.
In business, the over-riding mission of company directors is to achieve the best results for shareholders. Often this is defined, incorrectly, as short-term provision of share dividends. In truth this mission is a complex mix of market position, market share, share value and the long-term existence of the business.
In government, there is one over-riding mission, the protection of the population.
To achieve this mission, you set long-term goal e.g. the development and production of a vaccine, or the elimination of the virus as a major threat to public health.
To achieve these long-term goals you set shorter-term objectives e.g. developing and maintaining testing capacity and ensuring the appropriate levels of PPE to medical and care workers.
Supply of PPE to healthcare workers was one of the government’s five tests for loosening the lockdown. This target has not been met. PPE is still a scarce commodity. The much promoted delivery of PPE from Turkey is currently sitting in a warehouse at Heathrow, all 400,000 items, as it has failed PPE standards and is of no use in the combatting of Covid-19.
Then we come to the issue of mass testing. Another of the government’s five tests to reduce lockdown.
What appears to be a SMART objective was set: To complete 100,000 Covid-19 swab tests by the end of April.
As previously discussed in this blog, the government did not achieve this objective. It moved the goalposts. The test became not just tests carried out, i.e. tests sent to a laboratory for analysis; It became tests returned for analysis AND testing kits posted out.
To have your strategy succeed, you cannot ‘shift the goalposts’ in this way.
Since the government it is a fact that the government has still not met the 100,000 tests a day target. In fact, every day since the first of May, the government has missed not only the 100,000 tests returned for analysis objective, it has missed the 100,000 tests per day returned for analysis and kits posted out target.
Then there was Boris Johnson’s statement a Prime Ministers Questions that the number of tests per day target was to be raised to 200,000 tests per day. This was quickly altered by health ministers to having the capacity to complete 200,000 tests per day.
Let’s look at this objective under the lens of SMART objective criteria:
- SPECIFIC: This target is clearly not specific. Is it tests at a laboratory for analysis or is it the capacity to do those tests? Is it swab kits returned or swab kits posted? In my old professional role as a food standards officer a sample was not considered completed until I had received the results of analysis from the laboratory.
- MEASURABLE: Clearly the number of kits analysed can be counted but is just counting the number of test kits arriving at a laboratory enough. Surely objectives should include seeing a reducing number of positive tests and reducing the number of virus hotspots. Also what is the point of setting one metric and then altering that metric when it is clear you are not going to meet the original objective.
- ACHIEVABLE: Is the target achievable; particularly within the given timeframe? It is believed UK laboratory capacity is around 86,000 tests a day with laboratories working flat out. So why set targets higher than your existing capacity? The papers today are reporting that the UK is now flying completed swab kits to America in an attempt to increase the number completed. But this isn’t increasing the UK’s capacity to do tests, it’s taking part of another nation’s capacity to do tests
- REALISTIC: Given that the UK government has never met its original 100,000 tests a day target, how realistic is it that in a short-time frame a 200,000 tests a day; or test capacity; target can be met? Well, it isn’t realistic. It’s pie in the sky stuff from a politician desperate to enhance his position and trying to avoid blame.
- TIME BOUND: The targets were time bound. The end of April is a clear deadline. It must be asked why the end of April was chosen? What was special about that date? Why not by the middle on May? Others have suggested that this deadline was set not for clinical reasons but to fit the government’s news cycle and PR strategy. The date was a Friday and so fitted the story appearing in the Sunday papers. Two days of good PR could be achieved.
Politicians have long used the tactic of shifting goalposts but the UK government’s attempt to do so in recent days have been pathetic.
We need only look at the other event celebrated this weekend for comparison, VE day.
Boris Johnson need look no further than his hero, Winston Churchill, for how to properly develop and achieve strategy.
Churchill knew that to succeed in his over-arching goal of defeating Nazism there would be setbacks, failures, reverses but that to achieve that goal required honesty and a willingness to accept those reverses for what they were. Churchill was focused on the long-term strategy, not the short-term tactics. He was willing to take responsibility for failures and to alter strategy and tactics as a result of those failures. The honest manager or leader accepts that failures and setbacks in strategy will occur. They do not hide behind half truths or alter facts to suit their personal ambitions. Unfortunately many in government seem able only to do the latter