30 December 2009

Why are modern scientists so dull?

Why are modern scientists so dull? asks Bruce G Charlton. His conclusion?
[S]cientists are dull mainly because the progressive increase in the requirements for long-term plodding perseverance and social inoffensiveness has the effect of deterring, driving-out and failing to reward too many smart and creative potential scientists before they ever get a chance to engage in independent research.
I think the same could be said of policymakers and public servants and for broadly similar reasons. Any large organization is going to rely more on willingness to conform to the organization's rules and processes than on the contribution an individual makes to a particular outcome. An individual's conformity to procedures is much easier to measure than his or her contribution to a possibly nebulous or undefined outcome.

In my book about Social Policy Bonds I explain how attempts in the 1980s to reform New Zealand's public service faltered over the question of how to measure departmental performance. At the outset of the reform programme, government departments had been envisaged as achieving specific outcomes, but instead outputs became the measure by which departments' performance is judged. Why did that happen?
One reason is said to be the self-interest of ministers and public servants, who are unwilling to be scrutinised. Another is that while the supply of outputs can be directly attributed to departments performance, outcomes can be influenced by factors beyond their control. As one commentator put it: outcomes are externalities in two-party relationships; therefore it is exceedingly difficult to assign responsibility for them. Market solutions for social and environmental problems: Social Policy Bonds
So it looks very much as though the perceived need to assign responsibility in effect hijacked more thoroughgoing reform. The perception of such a need arises because the players - those whose responsibility is to be assigned - are known in advance and are assumed constant. And who are these players? Why, they are the existing government departments, of course. In effect the New Zealand reforms have subordinated results to an assumed need to assign responsibility, which in turn seems to be driven by existing institutional structures and their wish to perpetuate their own existence and degree of control. It's a potentially disastrous failing: leading to a divergence of the objectives of departments in particular and government in general from the people whom they are supposed to serve. The results, throughout the democratic countries, are becoming all too clear: a widespread disenchantment with conventional politics, a growing cynicism and despair over government ever being able to deliver what ordinary people want and need.

No comments: