Kicking John Stuart Mill

Asking for it

No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech. John Stuart Mill put forward the most famous defence of it and the truth of his case is now widely accepted, at least in the civilised places of the world. When I read Mill when I was younger his arguments seemed so much like common sense that I wondered he had even had to make them.

A few years ago I was working – for reasons that now seem as naïve as my appreciation of Mill – in the UK government’s Department for International Development. It was a merry place full of well-intentioned liberals who were for the most part quite genuinely committed to ending poverty across the world.

I soon began to notice that, while certain criticisms of the Department were acceptable, others were not. Questioning the efficacy of certain methods was fine – welcomed in fact. But questioning the rule of profit, trade and efficiency, and questioning the power relations between Department staff and poor people was entirely beyond the bounds of reasonable criticism.

I tried to talk about these things for a while but in the end I shut up. It wasn’t that I didn’t hold to my criticisms any more, but I discovered that the more I voiced them, the more I got pigeonholed as some kind of crank, or worse, useless to their cause. I stopped saying what I thought in meetings. I knew that if I did speak, any attempt to get a permanent job would be ruined. When I stopped caring about that – who the hell would want a job there? – I still said nothing. There seemed no gain to anyone from establishing myself as a useless weirdo.

That was when I went back to the past in a time machine, found John Stuart Mill, and dragged him forward to the future, just so that I could give him a hearty kick up the arse. ‘I didn’t want freedom of speech,’ I told him. ‘I wanted freedom to speak. An abstract freedom does nothing for my dignity if eight hours a day, five days a week I can’t practice it. Freedom of speech is nothing but a bad joke if the economic power of my managers renders them deaf.’

Then I began to notice that in the Department, so committed to the poor people of the world, no one gave much thought to the fact that they, a professional class of people extending across NGOs and government departments across the world, had granted to themselves a vast amount of decision-making power over how aid and development was done. It never seemed to occur to them that every decision they made was a decision that poor people could not make for themselves. Of course they admitted they got the decisions wrong sometimes, but they could always try again, there would always be another chance to be effective.

It seemed to me that the managerialism of the Department was a microcosm of a greater managerialism: the wealthy countries managing the poor countries and we, the wealthy, managing the poor. The roles we all played in this vast managerial empire could not be questioned. My freedom of speech – such as it was – meant far more than the freedom of speech of a poor person, and that was fine with the Department, even though the poor had much more at stake. The trick was simply for us all to play our roles as well as possible.

This made me, I’m afraid, quite irate, and I grabbed John Stuart Mill, who I had refused to return to his own time, and kicked him up the arse not once but several times. ‘We didn’t need freedom to speak,’ I said to him as I kicked. ‘We needed the power to speak. We needed to break out of the managerial regimes we were taught to regard as ‘natural’. We didn’t want to be supplicants asking favours of the elite, we wanted to speak as equals.’ I then put John Stuart Mill on a leash and tied him to a stake in my garden. I had a feeling I was going to need him again.

Soon I noticed that the professionals of the development industry were very keen on something called ‘voice’. The voices of the poor should be listened to if development was to be a success. This seems very laudable, unless you have already noted the power relations of the managerial regime, and so you become suspicious.

What is this ‘voice’ they mean? How does it fit in to the development industry? And you find that it means surveys, questionnaires, occasional interviews with poor people. These can then be summarised – with the more extreme views filtered out of course – and fitted into a report to come back to the Department. This will then be added as an annex to another report that doesn’t pay any attention to the mild conclusions of its own annex.

I began to realise that any time someone talks about ‘voice’, it means they intend to keep the powerless powerless. While the ‘voice’ of the poor floats through the corridors of power, the poor have to get on with their lives. As the ‘voice’ of the poor goes into the NGO newsletter – discreetly edited of course, since the donors wouldn’t understand the complexities of the project – the poor have to do things in order to live. Usually, and in the long run, it is their own actions that will create better lives for poor. Meanwhile in the Department the poor had become passive bodies, recipients of our help. The talk was of how our actions could save the poor.

So I went out to the garden to see John Stuart Mill again. This time I gave him a damn good thrashing. ‘The power to speak is not enough,’ I said to him. ‘I realise now that speaking won’t put food on anyone’s table. We needed the power to act. That means political power. You talked so much of liberty and freedom but you always assumed that the political structures of the elite were the right place for politics to happen. You assumed that if the people did have politics, it would be processed through the institutions of the elite and so find expression. But the elite have their own politics, their own desires to enact, and so our own desires and actions become swallowed by theirs.’

I don’t work in the development industry any more. Two days before leaving the Department for International Development I vented my frustration at the months of silence by telling a lot of the staff exactly what I thought of the place. It’s true I didn’t get locked up for doing that but it didn’t make a damn bit of difference either, except for ending any chance that I could work in development again. Everyone knows everyone you see, and they all know the kinds of things you should and should not say.

No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech. Except, that is, for criticising the word ‘freedom’, the word ‘of’ and the word ‘speech’. No one can argue against the idea of freedom of speech, except to say that it is not the power to act. If you do not have the power to act then freedom of speech becomes subsumed into the control techiques of those who do have the power, if you do have the power, freedom of speech is a triviality.

I still keep John Stuart Mill in the present, locked in my basement. Every now and then I go down and give him a good kicking on general principles. I suppose he suffers a bit but no one could call me a cruel man. I always allow him to say whatever he wants to me, however hard I’m kicking him.

Outputs and Measurables: The Obvious Reality in 7 points

Measurable

This post is not going to be one of the funnier ones. Try this one instead. Instead this post is going to state the obvious. I’ve worked with monitoring systems: outcomes, targets, outputs, measurables, Key Performance Indicators in the public sector. I’ve met dozens of people who have worked with them across the public and NGO sectors. Very few people had anything good to say about them and yet everyone works to them anyway. The management say they have to because of the funding imperatives or the political imperatives. Some managers put a brave face on it and say ‘We can get something good from this’. Others will admit it is nonsense but tell us that’s the way to get funding these days. And it is, which brings us to the first of seven very obvious points:

1. People structure their work to produce outputs, meaning projects are changed – some might say corrupted – by the funding they get, which means the people with the money get to decide or at least change the course of most projects.

2. Everyone uses targets and outputs these days. That means there is only one way to run an organisation. In all the world. Perhaps this should bother us. I mean, really? Only one way?

4. Far from making organisations efficient, it creates a new layer of bureacracy. Think about those application forms that take several weeks to fill out. Think how much time is lost to inventing the measurables, justifying them, monitoring compliance, reporting on deviations from expectations.

3. Everyone lies about what they’ve achieved. That’s not a statement of moral condemnation. You have to do it to make the system work. But having spent all this time and money on the bureacratic machinery to make it work, what it usually turns out is nonsense.

5. It is promoted by management and funders because they want control. This is why some managers adopt it even when the funding doesn’t require them to. It is way to reproduce strict top-down hierarchies that a lot of organisations claimed to have got rid of with flatter structures and informal ways of working.

6. Output measurement is done in mimicry of the private sector working to a bottom line. One of the reasons this is ‘efficient’ in the private sector is that it creates a huge amount of collateral damage that the company never has to pay for. People, resources, environment, political systems: all are ignored for the bottom line. Very efficient.

7. Most of the things that matter in life can’t be measured. And in obsessively measuring certain things, it is easy to push out the things that make life worth living. Measuring outputs is sucking the life out of us.

These points, though mostly very obvious indeed, might make some people ask ‘How else can we achieve our goals?’ But it’s a funny question, because this is a relatively new fashion. Presumably good things happened before the fashion hit us and I’m pretty sure we’ll find ways to make good things happen again. But we should also ask, how else can we achieve what goals? The goals in your mission statement? That’s a fiction anyway. What does your organisation really do I wonder?

But finally, if you want a serious answer: if your organisation is based on values, staffed by committed people who believe in those values, and embed those values in your work, and if your organisation is structured so that these committed people collectively control their work, then I don’t think you’ll need to worry about whether you are going to achieve things. Of course if your organisation is actually a bunch of hollow people doing hollow tasks for hollow reasons in a sneakily hierarchical dance then maybe you’re right: you should keep an eye on your progress with measurable outputs. It will be the only way to get anything done.