Jun 05 2009

Results: You get what you measure

by at 9:57 am under Uncategorized

Being an auditor, I naturally tend to look for what we call ‘internal controls.’ But those can be so awfully boring that you might have a violent reaction when reading about them.  So instead, I’ll talk about performance or effectiveness metrics in development.  It’s commonly accepted that programs usually don’t aim for success as much as they aim to meet their performance measures. Here I’m suggesting that metrics are institutions that create high transaction costs if they aren’t met, and that they might be used in creative ways to get better results in social programs.

When contractors are tasked with the goal of building a telecom network in a rural area, they usually focus on getting the infrastructure in place as quickly and cheaply as possible.  Their metrics are time and cost: when they come in over budget, they might pay the difference themselves; when they come in behind schedule, they could face financial penalties outlined in their contract.  In these formal institutions, the costs for not meeting milestones are financial.  Through the danger of costs created by metrics, program managers vie for the cheaper option of running effective programs.

This is all well and good in the contracting business, but how does it apply to social programs? Can the metrics of any development program be directly connected to political values like job creation,.education, political stability, or trade & broader economic performance.  Usually in these cases, the metrics are informal institutions. Everyone knows that a school’s goal is to graduate as many children as possible, or that it’s a politician’s job to create economic stability so more jobs can be created.  So why doesn’t this always work? It’s go to be caused by the structure of the networks surrounding these social organizations. The only people paying the costs of the missed milestones are the citizens.

Is there a way we can successfully increase accountability in social organizations?  How can we modify the relationships in these networks to do this?  Is there a way to create more costs to failing political leaders or more benefits to successful ones? How can citizens hold more power than just by voting leaders out of office?  This is a reason why some states stay perpetually under-developed — because there’s no accountability for political leaders. Perhaps newspapers play the role of a powerful network hub advocating on behalf of citizens. Maybe the answer lies in the promises of technology: extremely low costs to news and opinion dissemination and also for the creation and dissemination of hard metrics data on exactly what political leaders are contributing. This seems to have led us to a greater question than I anticipated, and I’ll end by conceding that it’s not something that can be solved in a simple blog entry. (At least not one of MY simple blog entries.)

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