The Irish State and public education and training providers are subject to a number of nationally and internationally agreed objectives. These emanate at international level primarily from the European Union and domestically from targets driven by government policy.
International objectives include those emanating from the European Employment Strategy 1997 and the Lisbon Strategy which include both employment objectives and education and training objectives82.
At a domestic level there are a number of relevant areas in which objectives have been set. The current strategy for the DES sets out 5 high-level goals and 29 associated objectives83. For each objective it sets out a number of strategies for achieving that objective; for each strategy a number of performance indicators are then identified.
For indicators relating to framework conditions such as the enactment of legislation or the establishment of new bodies or services an objective date is specified. However, for the majority of the indicators no quantified objectives are specified and therefore there is no obvious mechanism for gauging the degree of success of the individual strategies. The exceptions are indicators which reiterate objectives set in other policy documents such as the Programme for Government, Sustaining Progress, National Development Plan, National Employment Action Plan and the National Anti-Poverty Strategy.
There are legislatively driven targets such as the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 which requires that all students must be in school, or some equivalent education and training, until they reach the age of sixteen, or completion of junior cycle, or equivalent.
There are objectives set out in other reports such as the Commission on the Points System84, the National Anti-Poverty Strategy85; the National Action Plan on R&D; social partnership agreements such as Sustaining Progress and Towards 2016. The Employment and Human Resources Development Operational Programme of the National Development Plan 2000-2006 sets several relevant objectives. However, typically, these objectives are directed at inputs i.e. they specify the number of places to be provided in various programmes.
3.4.1 The Importance of Objective Setting
In general, there is a recognised reluctance to commit to transparent, quantitative objectives in relation to public policy initiatives. There are at least some understandable reasons why this may be so, not least the difficulties presented by over-simplification in the interpretation of data and the absence of well designed performance indicators. In the sphere of education and training for instance, some qualitative indicators will always be required as well as quantitative ones.
At present the determination of the success of many policy initiatives resides with the implementing body concerned. The Expert Group believes that objective setting must be an integral part of a National Skills Strategy if it is to be effective. It also believes that effective monitoring and evaluation is an integral part of policy development.
Specifically, objectives contribute to sound policy making and implementation through a number of channels:
- They facilitate accountability by indicating success or failure at the completion of a plan;
- Moreover, they can also play a constructive role in delivering policy goals: they can be used to provide quantitative feedback on progress during the execution of a plan i.e. they provide an impartial means of gauging progress on an on-going basis; and
- They are measurable and, therefore, can be used to encourage staff motivation thus enhancing employee productivity.
3.4.2 Best Practice in Setting Objectives
The Expert Group has set out below a series of guidelines which should be considered by policymakers when implementing a National Skills Strategy.
- Objectives are a means to an end and, consequently, must be chosen judiciously to ensure that they are causally linked to the desired, over-arching goal; otherwise the objectives may assume primacy over the goal with unintended consequences;
- Objectives should be both realistic and ambitious;
- Objectives should also be clear and unambiguous and be integrated across all levels of education and training;
- The ultimate objectives should be supplemented with intermediate ones, to facilitate monitoring progress over the life of the strategy;
- Responsibility for achieving objectives must be clearly assigned to an executive entity;
- Objectives should not undermine the free market that should operate for labour;
- Objectives should not be overly prescriptive; in certain circumstances the market is better left to determine outcomes, such as discipline mix etc. The role of the state should be to facilitate the efficient operation of the market through the timely dissemination of available information;
- Nor should actions to achieve objectives compromise individual freedom of choice to pursue particular avenues of education or training;
- Objectives should, where appropriate be outcomes-based rather than input-based. Input objectives are relatively easy to meet and easy to measure but provide little information on the overall effectiveness of a policy or programme;
- Attainment objectives are most appropriate for the horizontal or generic skills that will be a prerequisite for success in a wide range of employment and participation in the knowledge society;
- Objectives should be used to bring national performance ( for example, PISA rankings, completion rates) up to or above that of international norms ( for example, either EU/OECD average or top decile);
- Objectives should not focus exclusively on mean (average) performance levels but should also encompass the deviation from the mean; particularly variations in performance by gender and socioeconomic background. Significant polarisation is already evident in educational performance and, if left unchecked, could deteriorate further;
- Aspirations should not be used as substitutes for objectives; and
- Likewise, indicators which are used to assess progress in relation to specific policy objectives should not be confused with quantitative objectives which refer to actual outcomes rather than measurements of progress.