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Cheers - AE

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Hitting targets, but missing the point.

Thousands of commuters were denied payouts by Southeastern after the firm passed punctuality targets by a wafer-thin margin.
Greg Barker, a climate change minister and Tory MP for Bexhill and Battle, has demanded an independent inspection of the figures, saying they “didn’t smell right”.
This is because the statistics did not take into account the services which were cancelled when the company operated a succession of emergency timetables during the recent bad weather.
And what should we have expected? Time and again we've seen that setting a target in Britain means that efforts go into meeting the target by hook or by crook, and hard to quantify stuff like value for money or decent service often falls by the wayside. Imagine you were going to train basketball players and you drew a line at a certain height on a wall and tell them they must be able to jump and reach that line or else, and so reaching the line becomes so important that what was important before becomes secondary, or even eventually unimportant. Where you'll end up is obvious. Shooting baskets? Meh. As long as we reach that line...

The line that usually jumps straight into my head when I read stories about targets being met while services are widely regarded as being completely shithouse is a quote attributed to the late Robert McNamara, former US Defense Secretary. Supposedly it was his response when military chiefs were bringing him reports of the numbers of buildings destroyed in Viet-Cong territory during the Vietnam War.
Measure what is important. Don't make important what you can measure.
The message is plain: what is easy to measure isn't necessarily of much importance. I have no idea if McNamara might have felt the same way about targets but to me the whole concept often seems to be about making important what can be easily targeted, rather than targeting something of any real worth.

P.S. While unsuccessfully looking for a source for that McNamara quote I came across another line attributed alternatively to him or Ronald Reagan. This time I found a transcript of a speech McNamara made in 1966 which shows that if he didn't say it first it's at least likely that he said it before Reagan, who wasn't yet even Governor of California at the time. The quote doesn't have much to do with the subject of this post but it fits in with one of the themes of the blog as a whole.
Coercion, after all, merely captures man. Freedom captivates him.
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