Thursday, 31 March 2011

To March or Not to March?

Reflections on the 26 March Protest - and the Future

The London demonstration showed, if nothing else, people's strength of feeling against radical cuts in public spending. But, like many others, I would be more comfortable if I was clear what they were marching for, rather than against. I’m opposed to the current level of spending cuts, but equally opposed to continuing to fund poor public services. So where does that leave us?

Few people argue about the need for deficit reduction. It’s the extent and pace of the consequent cuts that causes controversy, and I’m convinced that no-one has the ‘right’ answer on this. We are speculating about how those nebulous concepts ‘the economy’ and ‘the markets’ will react to different policies, and if economists cannot predict this what chance do mere politicians have? So the view that any cuts should be slower, less deep and less arbitrary is certainly a legitimate one, and one that people have every right to express (short of the violence that marred the end of the day, which I utterly condemn).

The problem is that I’m not convinced that ‘slower and less deep’ is a sufficiently concrete alternative. Because if it is why haven’t we been doing it for years? Of course in many areas we have, and public service organisations across the board have been engaged on service improvement and efficiency initiatives – many of them very successful – going back some time. But their impact has been limited, and most of us will have personal experience of public services (sometimes those we work in!) which remain bureaucratic, inefficient and inept.

There’s a strong argument that the current cuts are less about fiscal policy than about driving organisational change. Successive governments have tried for decades to ‘simulate’ private sector market forces in an attempt to address the perceived inadequacies of public sector performance. And I stress the word ‘perceived’ here, because public service organisations are an easy target for accusations of mis-spending "our" money. (Funny, I thought it was our money that funded Tesco as well, but perhaps not?). So, the theory goes, impose huge cuts in public spending and organisations will be forced to change, where in the past they might have dragged their feet.

Whether or not that argument is justified, the counter-argument can't be one of status quo or “please leave us alone”. Public services have to demonstrate that they can and will improve the value they deliver without being beaten over the head with the blunt instrument of spending cuts. In doing this they are at an innate disadvantage compared with the private sector, who can generally express value in terms of revenue and profit.

The public and voluntary sectors often deliver value in much more intangible ways, through the difference they make to people and communities, and these can be much harder to communicate. Which is why public services are such an easy target: the money they cost is often much more visible than the results they achieve.

In a sense, cutting services (or maximising fees for Universities) in response to funding reductions is admitting defeat. It implies that your organisation knows so little about how it works that you cannot even identify opportunities for improving value, let alone implement them. Some more positive response is needed, over and above what may have been said or done before.

Whilst heavy-handed inspection regimes may be a thing of the past, accountability certainly is not. What we need is a situation where public services are recognised, by government and the public at large, for the real value they deliver. To achieve this, public services themselves must:

  • find meaningful (and non-bureaucratic) ways to demonstrate the difference they make; and

  • prove that they can achieve radical improvements in performance without the external 'sledgehammer' of public spending cuts

Get that right and I’ll be marching with you!


Check my web site at for more information and ideas.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Measuring the Unmeasurable (Part 2)

We continue our debunking of Einstein's statement "Not everything that matters can be counted." Happiness-counters ('well-being' if you prefer) please take note!

The factors that contribute to human happiness are largely understood. More than 50 years ago Abraham Maslow published his 'Hierarchy of Needs' which classified the building blocks of well-being very succinctly – see illustration. (Looking at this from the relative comfort of the UK it is disturbing to see how many parts of our world struggle with the very basic needs of this pyramid's first two levels, whereas we agonise over relatively trivial matters towards the top.)

In measuring these factors, it is important to do so from the perspective of customers or stakeholders – those on the receiving end. For example, the value of an initiative to reduce youth unemployment does not lie in the amount of money invested but in the benefits and perceived increase in well-being from those it affects (trainees themselves, their families and their communities). Some of these benefits may be intangible – the 'feelgood factor' if you like – but there are ways to quantify even these benefits. Social Return on Investment (SROI) uses many of these techniques.

From a policy perspective the most testing aspect then becomes understanding how we attain that increase in value. What initiatives or activities will yield the best results in terms of improving these outcomes, and how can we make the best use of available resources to achieve these? Currently, the government's whole Big Society approach is predicated on the idea of maximising well-being at minimum cost by seeding communities to bring about change and improvement for themselves rather than have the authorities do it for them. As a philosophy this is difficult to argue with; it's the means of bringing this about that are much more controversial.

Measuring the effectiveness of this type of 'enabler' activity thus becomes critical in understanding what works and its likely impact on well-being. How will we assess for example the success or otherwise of the government's Community Organisers, for whom a training contract has just been awarded to Locality? It's easier in fact to say how not to do it, and that is by using the first metric that comes into your head. The right approach is to develop a long list of possible indicators ('brainstorming' is a permissible term), and then distilling this down in group discussion to one or two indicators that best reflect what you are trying to achieve.

Working with a housing organisation, I once tackled the question of how they should assess the effectiveness of their communication to and from tenants. We brainstormed a wide range of ideas, and the metric eventually selected actually came up quite late in the discussion. They chose to measure the percentage response rate from annual tenants surveys, partly because a higher response rate should indicate a more engaged tenant community, but also because this indicator should also encourage the right mindset and behaviours amongst their own staff.

Whilst it may be possible to attribute numbers to these intangibles, and hence measure the unmeasurable in this way, the real point is not about numbers but about change. If we have some indication of happiness/well-being levels, and have measures which tell us which of our attempts to influence these are most successful, then there is very little added value in being able to articulate this to several decimal places. It's at this point that we make the essential and very welcome transition from measurement to actually making it happen!

Check my web site at for more information and ideas.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Measuring the Unmeasurable (Part 1)

Albert Einstein once said: "Not everything that matters can be counted. Not everything that can be counted matters."

Few would argue with the second statement. The raft of recently withdrawn performance targets bears witness to the futility of much of the counting the public sector has undertaken in the past few years. The first part of Einstein's quote might be questioned however, particularly by David Cameron if he wants to measure national happiness.

Part of the problem lies in the nature of measurement. It was Disraeli who allegedly coined the phrase "lies, damned lies, and statistics", though I personally prefer Vic Reeves version: "84.9% of statistics are made up on the spot!" Issues arise not with measurement as such, but when we try to reduce everything to numbers.

In fact there is nothing new to measuring something as intangible as happiness. The former King of Bhutan famously declared in 1972 that "Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product". Since then his country has measured its people's happiness based factors which, whilst founded in Buddhist philosophy, reflect components that are internationally recognised as contributing to human happiness. These components (sustainable development, cultural values, natural environment and good governance) are still easier to state than to measure precisely, but they act as the foundation of the way that particular society operates.

The point is that we should not expect to measure happiness, or other intangible human attributes, to a number of decimal places as we might measure distance, temperature or other characteristics of the world around us. Measuring happiness only becomes useful if we can say whether or not it is improving, and can influence the factors that cause that improvement. The maxim "don't ask a question unless you know what you're going to do with the answer!" applies perfectly here.

Getting meaningful information on human happiness thus comes down to two aspects:

  • understanding the factors that cause people to feel happy or otherwise

  • understanding how we can influence these factors and hence make people happier

The first of these is not hard to appreciate. We cannot for example measure the 'niceness' of the weather as a single figure, but we can measure factors like humidity, temperature, wind speed and sunshine that influence our perception of the weather. The same applies to happiness except that some of the factors here are more subjective, or could be prioritised differently by different cultures.

The second factor - influencing - is harder, because it involves anticipating both the short-term and long-term impact of the decisions we make. For example, we already prohibit access to certain land areas to preserve wildlife and natural habitat. Taking this much further, by excluding people from large areas of our national parks, would undoubtedly yield benefits in terms of sustainability for future generations. But in the short term it would make many people unhappy by denying them access to areas and pursuits that they enjoy. Similarly, alleviating unemployment through costly government subsidies may increase happiness for those who benefit, but could be outweighed if the longer term economic impact of such spending adversely affects the whole population.

Moreover, some of the indicators on which such policy decisions have to be based may themselves be intangible: how can we measure sustainability, motivation, or communication for instance? It's a complex issue but the starting point is something I would like to offer as an alternative quote to the Einstein original:

"Everything can be measured in some way. Nothing (other than simple counting) can be measured with perfect accuracy."

In other words, it's not about trying to reduce everything to numbers but about how we can gauge and influence what will be widely accepted as improvement. Assessing progress rather than trying to measure absolutes, if you like.

This was Part 1. "Stay tuned" as they say, and I will develop this argument in more practical detail with my next blog.

Check my web site at for more information and ideas.