Outputs and Measurables: The Obvious Reality in 7 points


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.

Jousting with your Inner Thatcher (Part 3): You must contribute to society to get the benefits of society

Things to do with a Thatcher

This is the last in a series of posts about the Inner Thatcher that hides in the dark depths of our souls. After decades of propaganda for a dog-eat-dog world the fight against the ideology of the day is not just a fight against our rulers but a fight in our own heads, like one of those scenes in a film where an actor (Johnny Depp let’s say) has an internal struggle with himself, illustrated by a montage displaying his internal conflict while he stands there looking pretty.

The idea that we should all contribute to society in order to get the benefits society offers didn’t originate with Thatcher or her acolytes of course. It’s a much older idea than that, but the era of Thatcher and Blair created an intensification of the idea that we must all contribute to society by working and paying tax. On the surface it can seem common sense, but first allow me to wonder why it appeals so much to low-tax, small-government obsessives. Well, the richer you are, the more you can contribute, but the less you need society’s help in return. So it creates a wonderful logic in which those who deserve society’s assistance don’t need it, and those who need society’s assistance don’t deserve it. In case it is not already clear to you, the purpose of this feat of logic is to lower taxes on the rich.

However my first gut reaction to this manifestation of the Inner Thatcher is not to do with justice and wealth distribution. Instead I find myself thinking: you’re talking as though we’re on the edge of starvation as a society. As though we’re some hunter-gatherer society where everyone will suffer if one or two people do nothing. The reality is the opposite: we have available to us absurd excesses of wealth that we piss up the wall on Olympic stadiums and other vanity projects. So why this pressure to force everyone to work? What is all our technology for if it doesn’t allow some of us to put our feet up sometimes? I think the answer to that is another side-effect of the contribute-or-suffer argument: pushing everyone to be available to work increases the supply of labour and thus lowers wages. This idea is a real beauty for those at the top raking in the profits isn’t it? Time to get our war hammers out and root the bastard out of our heads.

But come on now, I hear the Inner Thatcher cry, the motives of our rulers may be rotten, but surely they are right: surely it is only just that everyone contribute to society to the extent they are able? Well…perhaps. But the politicians’ arguments only hold true if we allow that sneaky Inner Thatcher to pull a trick on us. The trick is to deliberately confuse money and value – I use the word value in a broad sense here, not in the way it is sometimes used in economics. Many things have value to us, as people and as a society. Some of them have a monetary value, like washing machines, some of them have apparently arbitrary monetary value, like art, and some of them we choose not to put a monetary value on at all: a mother’s love for example.

We can go further than this and say that the monetary reward for labour is not in proportion to the usefulness of the labour. The bike you ride, assembled in China, probably strikes you as more useful than, say, high street phone shops that never have the best deals (try the internet people!). So it is clear the high street phone salesman does something a lot less useful than the chinese worker who built your bike, but you know who gets paid more.

And then there’s people working in finance. From time to time they move resources to where they are needed but the majority of what they do is parasitic upon that. They are the highest paid people in society and tend to go to great lengths to avoid paying tax. When you think about it, there appears to be very little link at all between wages and what we really need or value. The link is more generally between wages and power, but that’s another subject really. It’s true that richer people pay more taxes of course, but if that’s a tax on parasitism then we can’t just go congratulating them on contributing so much.

So what does our Inner Thatcher mean when she talks about people contributing to society? Does she take into account the value of a single mother who devotes herself to her children? Does she take into account the pleasure we can give each other through art, through conversation, through simply being there for each other? No? Does she take into account the people creating beautiful front gardens in their free time, or campaigning to improve the lives of other people? Then it’s probably time to get dirty. A firework under the hooves of her charger perhaps. A poisoned dart aimed through the slit in the helmet. If she’s not fighting clean then why should we?

But the Inner Thatcher is not yet defeated: she has more arguments in favour of making us all work until we’re wrung out. Work brings self-respect apparently. And it’s true that achievement can help build self-respect, but only some jobs achieve things, and much achievement happens outside of work. Many jobs give no sense of achievement at all and – in my experience at least – these jobs undermine the very meaning of your life, let alone your self-respect. I also can’t help thinking that you will only gain self-respect in work in which you are respected by your employers and colleagues. So this argument only works if the jobs unemployed people are being pushed into are meaningful jobs in which they will be respected. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Kill your Inner Thatcher now.

But the Inner Thatcher has another defence and David Cameron is the man to sell it to us all: ‘Why should the assistance of society mean the assistance of the state?’ Says she, and he. It is a very good question. It also has a good answer. The state is the body that frames the legal entities (companies and corporations) that both produce things in our society and concentrate the profit from them among very few people. The state is therefore, until the end of those legal structures, the only body with the power to correct the wealth distortions they create. Very probably the spending mechanisms should not be centrally controlled, but within the current economic system, so beloved by Thatcher and perhaps by your Inner Thatcher too, we have no choice but for taxes to be centrally collected. You could almost say it’s a logical product of corporate power: only the creator of the corporations has the ability to ensure that a wider benefit can come from their activities.

There is one last weapon in the toolbox of your Inner Thatcher. What about those people who are genuinely just lazy spongers? What should we do about them? Well I don’t know, but I don’t think they’re a big problem to society. Really. I think they’re a big problem to their friends and relatives. To society? They’re pretty insignificant I think. They’re certainly not worth producing an entire linguistic and political apparatus in order to fight. It’s like swatting a fly with an RPG. That apparatus is there for other reasons, already mentioned.

That apparatus is also there because redistribution is a dirty word to the people in power now. Everyone gets what they deserve, according to them, and the state shouldn’t interfere in that. Everyone gets what they deserve? That’s the thinking of a child. Or a greedy, lying political operator. If you find one of the latter in your own head, be sure to challenge her to a joust, and remember not to fight fair.

What to say when people say…I vote Tory because I believe in individual freedom

Is this a criminal justice protest or did I just like the photo?

This is a post about what I have in common with Tory voters. I’m honestly not trying to be sarcastic or anything. I do have something in common with Tory voters, quite apart from having, say, lungs (I was going to say heart, then brain, but didn’t want to make assumptions – I’m pretty sure they have lungs, right?). It’s not a small thing I have in common with them either. There is a problem though, which I’ll explain later.

A lot of people vote Conservative because they believe in individual freedom and they think Labour politicians are authoritarians. And they’re right. I agree. Labour under Blair and Brown produced a raft of knee-jerk authoritarian legislation to use against suspects, against protesters, to enable government spying on people, to stop people taking photos. They tried to curtail anti-social behaviour by force. They introduced ID cards no one wanted for no explicable reason. It felt like they just liked the idea of calling the entire population into registration centres to be photographed and recorded, or just wanted to keep an eye on us all on general principles.

They produced a lot of what can only be described as authoritarian liberal legislation, trying to defend people against discrimination while not understanding that the law doesn’t actually challenge bigotry. I don’t think the government should use their vast resources to attempt to shape people’s thinking and behaviour. Yes, I know that in reality they do that all the time, but the principle of it is screwed up and Labour made more of an effort to do it than anyone in the UK since Philip II of Spain tried to invade.

The only behavioural legislation that seemed reasonable to me was making violence against children illegal. I don’t think children should have less rights than adults just because they’re smaller and the adults can get away with it. That law I saw as a correction to an obvious anomaly. The rest seemed, ironically, like a scolding teacher finally getting annoyed with us for not listening – and picking up the cane in a threatening manner.

Most of all, Labour passed laws at the drop of a hat. They passed laws for pretty much anything. If they had woken up one morning thinking wet wipes were inadequately sized they would have passed a law to specify the correct way to make wet wipes. They couldn’t help themselves. Their response to every problem was to legislate. They had the hearts of authoritarians and the souls of…. Actually there is no way to finish that sentence. According to the Torygraph:

In his 10 years as prime minister, Tony Blair presided over more than 3,000 new laws, more than 1,000 of which carried jail terms; Gordon Brown added hundreds more. Labour created new offences at twice the rate of the previous Tory administration, […]

So there you go. I do have something in common with Tory voters – or a lot of them anyway. Labour’s assault on individual freedom made me feel kind of sick, then kind of pissed off, then very pissed off, then really vomit-hurlingly ill.

There is a problem however. Quite a big problem. And it’s this: the Tories don’t believe in individual freedom either. I’m pretty sure they don’t believe in anything much except their own wealth and power. Their pretence to be lovers of freedom is something they stick to for as long as they think it’s a votewinner, then oops, the mask slips. You’ll note the quote above has […] at the end because it is incomplete. Here’s the complete sentence:

Labour created new offences at twice the rate of the previous Tory administration, which had been bad enough in this regard.

So even the Torygraph doesn’t think the Tories really respect our right to be free from government control. But if you want more evidence, or some things to say to people who say they vote Tory because they believe in individual freedom, here you go:

  • They scrapped ID cards right? Well, almost. They kept them for migrants. Partly because you never can trust those dusky foreigners, but mostly because no one was watching or caring. In Toryland an authoritarian act doesn’t count if no one notices, and particularly if their core voters don’t notice.

  • Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. A despicable piece of legislation in pretty much every regard, though I can’t really argue with extending the definition of rape to include anal rape – presumably everyone had just been too prudish to talk about it before. The Act not only increased police powers considerably, meaning a reduction in rights for ordinary people, but it was also an act of intergenerational authoritarianism passed to appease their core voters who were worried by the youngsters being able to, y’know, have too much fun.

  • Sure, the Tories hated unions, but they never prevented their right to associate, right? They would never go that far, right? Except what they did was pass a raft of legislation aimed at de-politicising unions and preventing them from taking political actions. They used the instrument of legislation to destroy a political opponent. You can associate, they said, just don’t do it politically. Because we don’t like it. But we love freedom, honest.

  • Their foreign policy. Like, forever. After the Bahrain government murdered protesters yesterday, David Mellor came on Radio 4 defending the Bahrain government as a ‘stalwart friend of the West’. By which he presumably meant a stalwart friend of him and his rich friends who’ve made money from them. They pretended they were supporting Pinochet as a bulwark against communism. Except supporting authoritarianism to prevent authoritarianism doesn’t really make sense does it? Does it? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, unless logic changed since I last checked. It does make sense if what really bothers you – much more than anyone’s freedom – is the issue of whether you can make money with that government.

  • And finally, when they do claim to be putting effort into ‘liberating’ people to do what they want, what they mostly tend to do is liberate corporations to do what they want. They’re good at that. A bit of a shame then that a corporation is an essentially authoritarian structure utterly unconcerned with the rights of individuals.

I do have common ground with Tory voters. Where we separate is the issue of whether the Tories mean anything they say.