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The New Statesman

21 January 2002

 

 

The Storming of the Accountants

 

David Boyle



It began as a small revolt at the Sorbonne in Paris, but may yet develop into a worldwide movement against the tyranny of numbers. David Boyle reports

"It may work fine in practice," goes a joke that the French make at their own expense. "The trouble is, it just doesn't work in theory." So it is strange that Paris has become the birthplace of a revolt against the pre-eminence of theory over practice, of economic abstraction over reality, and statistics over real life. Called "post-autistic economics" - "autistic" is intended to imply an obsessive preoccupation with numbers - the revolt began with a website petition in June 2000 from students at the Sorbonne (see [http://www.paecon.net/]). They were protesting against the dogmatic teaching of neoclassical economics and the "uncontrolled use" of mathematics as "an end in itself".

Within weeks, the call was taken up by students across France. Le Monde launched a public debate, and Jack Lang, the education minister, appointed the respected economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi to head an inquiry. Fitoussi reported last September, backing many of the rebels' points and recommending sweeping changes in the way economics is taught in French universities. The movement has had a worldwide impact, with Cambridge students drawing up their own petition - although most were too scared for their future careers to put their names to it.

Could this episode prove the beginning of the end for the whole cult of measurement, statistics, targets and indicators that has become such a feature of modern life, not just in the Blair government, but around the world?

The phrase "post-autistic" has a touch of Gallic cruelty about it, but there is a sense in which we have been cut off from reality by the plethora of targets and indicators. It's like the 18th-century mathematical prodigy Jedediah Buxton, who, asked if he had enjoyed a performance of Richard III, could say only that the actors had spoken 12,445 words.

Over the past decade or so - boosted by added enthusiasm from new Labour - we have been plunged into what Professor Michael Power of the London School of Economics calls "the audit culture . . . a gigantic experiment in public management". We can see the results everywhere. The government introduced about 8,000 targets or numerical indicators of success during its first term of office. We have NHS targets, school league tables, environmental indicators - 150 of them at last count - and measurements covering almost every area of professional life or government, all in the name of openness, accountability and democracy.

Nor is this just happening in the public services. The Japanese multinational Matsushita has developed a "smart" toilet that measures your weight, fat ratio, temperature, protein and glucose every time you give it something to work on. Then it sends these figures automatically to your doctor.

Accountancy firms cream off 10 per cent of British graduates to do all this counting. Whole armies of number-crunchers are out there, adding to the budgets of public transport, the NHS and social services.

We have been here before - especially in periods of great social hope such as the 1830s, when the followers of Jeremy Bentham rushed across the country in stagecoaches, armed with great bundles of tabular data and measuring everything they thought important: the number of cesspits (which they saw as an indicator of ill health), or pubs (an indicator of immorality), or the number of hymns that children could recite from memory.

Then as now, the problem is that what really needs measuring is not countable. "So-called efficiency," says Richard Scase, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Kent at Canterbury, "takes the place of effectiveness, quantity of quality. The means become an end in themselves." As anyone in local government will tell you, these numerical indicators are about management at a distance, and they will always miss the point: school league tables make teachers concentrate on borderline pupils at the expense of their weaker classmates; waiting-list targets persuade NHS managers to treat those with the quick, simple problems at the expense of everyone else.

It is a dream from the world of management consultancy, encapsulated in the McKinsey slogan that "everything can be measured and what gets measured gets managed". It is no accident that Nick Lovegrove, a partner at McKinsey & Co, is advising Gordon Brown on productivity and Tessa Jowell on IT strategy. Another McKinsey recruit has been appointed to advise No 10 on transport policy.

The problem is that people are now expected to do what the targets tell them, rather than what is actually necessary. Hospitals are ordering more expensive trolleys and reclassifying them as "mobile beds", to sidestep the target that no patient should stay on a hospital trolley for more than four hours. I also know of at least one local authority that achieves government targets for separating waste - at great expense - but then simply mixes it all up again in landfill. Scotland Yard figures that showed it had recruited 218 people from ethnic minorities between April and September 2000 turned out to include Irish, New Zealanders and Australians. The useful figure was four.

The consequences of pinning down the wrong thing are severe. All your resources will be focused on achieving something you did not intend, as the Pentagon discovered in the Vietnam war, when it audited the success of military units by their body counts. Result: terrible loss of life among the Vietnamese, but no US victory.

The Blair government's dilemma is that if ministers measure the things over which they have direct control, they simply measure the activity of bureaucrats. If they measure real effects - for instance, the looming and probably unreachable targets for school attainment in English, maths and truancy - they risk detonating a political time bomb when they fail to meet them.

The first signs of disenchantment are appearing. The Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, apologised to anyone who had suffered because of the government's waiting-list targets, and promised to give priority to patients with the most serious conditions. The school league tables have been scrapped in Northern Ireland after three-quarters of the responses to a consultation urged that they go.

Meanwhile, in the United States - where the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy estimates that compulsory school tests take up 20 million school days and cost anything up to $900m - pupils in Massachusetts and Denver refused to take their tests. Louisiana parents went to court to prevent them taking place at all.

Even conventional accountancy has problems. "I believe there is a crisis of confidence in our profession," Joseph Berardino, the chief executive of Arthur Andersen, told the US Congress last month, after the unexpected bankruptcy of one of Andersen's clients, Enron, whose accounts it had signed and to which it had also been giving consultancy advice.

It is well known that staff in the UK public services are impatient with the measuring culture because it ignores their professional knowledge and judgement - those aspects of their job that can't be reduced to figures. But there is also a suggestion that it was borrowing this measurement culture - of very narrow bottom lines, financial and otherwise - that is behind the failure of so many privatised businesses to show the imagination and verve that had been expected of them.

Charles Saumarez Smith, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, argues that measuring fever actually causes inefficiency - by "aping the form rather than the content" of the private sector, and "assuming that measurement is what is important, and not intelligence and achievement". He characterises the modern public sector as embodying "a belief that the system is more important than the individual, that accountability is more important than intelligence or creativity, with the result that the public sector is likely to continue to limp along impotently and inefficiently as long as it holds a low sense of its own political valuation and public esteem".

Accountability is important, and the auditing culture was in part a response to the crudity of measuring success by the financial bottom line. But measurement of this kind may be more about empire. It is about the idea that everything can be controlled from the centre, every job broken down into measurable parts - a Taylorist fantasy of time and motion - with every decision taken in full view of the auditors and the public.

It is hard to imagine a revolt spreading beyond French economics students unless the movement comes up with a coherent alternative, but also possible to glimpse what that might look like. It would be about decentralising power, giving more hands-on experience to teachers, managers and civil servants, and creating smaller, human-scale institutions. It would mean more face-to-face management, nurturing responsibility and creativity - in short, all the things that new Labour finds hardest.

A friend of mine with a hefty government grant, negotiating with civil servants over his annual targets, tells me he quoted the old Scottish proverb: "You don't make sheep any fatter by weighing them." They looked at him with complete incomprehension. There is clearly a long way to go.

David Boyle's The Tyranny of Numbers is published in paperback this month by Flamingo (8.99)


The Author New Statesman Ltd. 2001.