15 February 2010

Use broad, meaningful, numbers

Severe winter weather in England. Some schools decide to close, others to stay open. Marjorie Clarke from Devon, in a letter to 'the Independent', explains why:
[I]f a school decides to close, it will not affect the official attendance record, but if it opens and only half the pupils attend, this will be counted as poor attendance.... Letters, 'The Week', 16 January
...and the school penalised accordingly. School attendance records like this constitute another in the UK's prolific series of Mickey Mouse micro-objectives.

Using numerical indicators and targets is perhaps a regrettable, but largely inevitable part of governing large, complex societies. My work on Social Policy Bonds has convinced me that those numbers that are used should be as broad as possible, and inextricably linked to what we are really trying to achieve. There needs to be more clarity about means and ends. School attendance, for instance, however measured, is not a social goal: better educational outcomes are.

So my advice to the UK Government, or any well-intentioned body aiming to achieve meaningful social and environmental goals, is to think carefully about what you want to achieve and, as far as possible, reward people for achieving. It sounds simple, and it's the underlying principle of Social Policy Bonds. But with the odd exception it's rarely been deployed, and when it has (see here, for one example), it's seldom by governments, who are responsible for by far the biggest sums supposedly devoted to achieving social goals.

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