22 August 2020

Outcomes, not algorithms, should define policy goals

There are sound reasons for being disdainful of quantitative targets in policymaking - something that forms the very basis of Social Policy Bonds. But, perhaps unfortunately, in our highly aggregated, complex, societies, the alternative to targeting broad, explicit and, most important, meaningful goals is to target narrow, opaque goals that are devoid of meaning in that they do nothing to improve social well-being. The current Economist does a good job of illustrating the problems of consequences of using narrow, short-term, incoherent targets (what I have called Mickey Mouse micro-targets):
They produce perverse results when people focus excessively on them. They tempt managers to manipulate numbers. The obsession with measurement diverts people from useful activity to filling in forms. The [UK] department of health provided a fine example of the first when it penalised hospitals whose emergency departments took too long to treat patients after ambulances had dropped them off. Hospitals responded by keeping patients waiting in ambulances rather than in emergency departments. The [London] Metropolitan Police illustrated the second, after it linked pay and promotion to achieving a crime-reduction target. A police whistle-blower told a parliamentary committee that downgrading or underreporting crime had become “an ingrained part of police culture”. The universities to which A-level students are struggling to get admitted provide an example of the third. Tenure and promotion are awarded on the basis of the production of articles (which can be measured) rather than teaching (which can’t), so students suffer.  How the British government rules by algorithm, the 'Economist', 22 August 
The most important quality of a target is that it should be in itself, or be inextricably linked to, things that we actually want to achieve. In other words, they should not merely have (perhaps) been associated with social well-being in the past. They should be outcomes that are meaningful to ordinary people, because that's what matters most and that is what will encourage people's engagement with policymaking and hence our buy-in to policies that affect us. They need to be broad, so that achieving one target does not come at the expense of other social goals. The alternative? Well, it is what we have now: indicators defined not by society, but by vested interests within organizations who suspect that broad, meaningful targets - indicators of actual, meaningful outcomes - would threaten their way of doing things, their status, or indeed their existence.

No comments: