19 October 2006

Measuring government performance

The contribution of government to the economies of the rich world exceeds that of Communist China or the Soviet Union in many regions. (In Wales, for example, the public sector accounts for 66 per cent of the economy.)

One problem arising from this is that governments have to use numerical indicators to measure the success or otherwise of their policies (if they attempt that sort of monitoring at all) and that these indicators, as in the former USSR, may have very little correlation with anything meaningful to people - other than the bureaucrats whose careers rise or fall on how well they can make those figures look.

The problem becomes more serious as government crowds out our non-numerical ways of doing things. In many areas of life, and for most but not all of us, these ways are more efficient, adaptive and responsive than government approaches. They are also more obviously sensible, though more resistant to codification, systemisation and other bureaucratic processes. What areas of life am I talking about? Things like child rearing, personal health, and the arts. Well-meaning government programmes, initially developed to deal with extreme cases, expand to dominate more and more of our routine activity: like the private sector, but without its disciplines, growth is the public sector’s imperative.

Etc. The one thing for which neither you nor anyone under your management will be held responsible are outcomes for young people. It would be the same if the issue were crime, or health care, or education…. Plausible reasons for poor outcomes can always be found outside the performance of your agency, and many of them will be perfectly valid. There are just too many variables for your performance to count for much.

All this should imply a certain humility on the part of government. If it works in areas where it cannot think of measurable outcomes that are inextricably linked to social welfare or environmental benefits it probably should not be involved in that field of activity. In those areas government is very likely to be crowding out less formal, but more efficient ways of doing things. Government should stop its subsidies to its corporate friends, which it currently gets away with because they allegedly benefit 'domestic industry' or 'the family farm' or 'transport links'. Instead it should concentrate on the most extreme cases of social and environmental deprivation, where its help is unquestionably needed and where the numbers do correlate with social and environmental well being.

What we have now, and are increasingly suffering from, is in some ways the worst of both worlds: big, intrusive and growing government working hand-in-with big business the expense of everyone else. Tragically this co-exists with expanding pockets of social deprivation, and in many areas, a deteriorating social and physical environment.

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