David Boyle

Counting the countryside: reply to debate

Ecos magazine, August 2007


I was fascinated by Tony Hare’s feedback on your measurement issue, and am very much in agreement with the need to battle what he called the “monster of mainstream monotony and managerialism”.

But I did not really agree with him about measurement, that the solution to the current inaction is to define ‘outcomes’ better and measure things that are concrete and achievable.  The difficulty is that the reason we are beset by a generation of vague, technocratic targets is precisely because the more concrete targets have proved so misleading.

Simply because it is so hard to measure what’s really important, governments and institutions originally tried to pin down something else.  But the consequences of pinning down the wrong thing are severe: all their resources get focussed on achieving something they did not quite intend.

How did they measure the success of a military unit in the Vietnam War?  Answer: body count.  Result: Terrible loss of life among the Vietnamese, but no American victory. 

How do you make sure schools are living up to parents’ expectations?  Answer: test the children as much as possible.  Result: exhausted kids who can see no further than exams.

How do you make trains more punctual?  Answer: measure how often they’re late.  Result: train companies simply lengthen the official journey times. 

Modern government is by quantifiable targets, and these will always – almost by definition – miss the point.  So, while I agree that rebelling against measurable outcomes can mean avoiding real action, the difficulty is that measuring the wrong thing tends to mean emphasising the wrong action – or at least action which may not relate to the final outcome as much as those who designed the targets expect.

So Tony throws one of my arguments back at me: how are you going to be sure that the people you employ at local level are imaginative and effective?

My answer is that this is the wrong question.  I would say that wouldn’t I!  But if the only solution is to measure every aspect of the way they do their job, constantly looking over their shoulders, controlling their every response as if they were automatons, then we will get the second rate results we deserve.  The real question is how we can recruit for imagination and effectiveness.  It is, in short, a human resources problem not an accounting problem.

Someone like Jack Welsh of General Electric boasted that he spent half his time recruiting the top 500 posts in his company, because that was the key task before him.  He did not spend half his time trying to measure precisely their achievements, except in the broadest possible ways.  If business understands that, why doesn’t government?

So that’s my answer, and it is about the decentralisation of responsibility rather than the increasingly technocratic and distant control of professionals.  Because, unless we let our professionals share in the love of the countryside that Tony talks about, and brings that to bear on their work, we lose that aspect of their skill – we waste it, along with their imagination – leaving behind only the technocratic bits at the service of the public.

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title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers