Adoption of targets by politicians grew from Richard Dawkins' application of game theory to evolutionary biology in The Selfish Gene, where he proposes "evolutionary stable strategies" formed when individuals act as "doves" and "hawks" in various situations in order to maximise the gains to themselves by helping the community attain goals, eg get food or minimise conflict.
Adam Curtis’ documentary The Lonely Robot examines how target-setting based on game theory greatly excited politicians since The Selfish Gene appeared. Margaret Thatcher doubted the practice’s validity, but John Major took it up and Tony Blair embraced it. If you set targets for organisations and leave them to attain them however they choose, the theory goes, the best outcomes for everybody involved will result. In practice we got ambulances reclassified as hospital wards, trolleys as beds and "hello nurses" to satisfy Casualty admission targets: I would add that the whole sorry mess reached its nadir with the corporate massacre at Stafford in the name of targets.
Watch The Lonely Robot below or click here to view on Youtube: