The Vietnam war was lost in the classrooms of America's business schools. John F Kennedy in 1961 appointed Robert S McNamara, former business professor, whizz-kid at the Ford Motor Company and its eventual president, as secretary of defence. McNamara brought the mantra of the management consultant to the heart of government: 'If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.' He established a statistical strategy for winning the Vietnam war, one based on his key index: body counts: body counts, tonnage of bombs dropped, miles of land controlled, shells fired.
These metrics shaped how the war was fought, pushing junior commanders to compromise their integrity in the pursuit of the measurable, with atrocious consequences. Big data said the US won, but as history's best generals knew, 'military activity is never directed against material force alone.' By disdaining the immeasurable human factors, strategy, leadership, group cohesion, and the enemy's will to fight, the US realised too late that it had lost the war.
McNamara and his fellows spread their managerialist culture, and today a tyranny of counting is taking over our working lives. Accountability has become confused, no longer meaning 'responsible' but rather 'capable of being counted.' This worldview takes the form of a pincer movement – from the right we replace professional judgement with standardised numerical metrics, and from the left we make those metrics public and call it transparency.
I saw metric madness while I was a teacher in a private school – yearly league tables were life and death in Ireland's highly competitive private school sector. In the UK and US league tables are even more pervasive, as they are in all countries where the global educational reform movement – the GERM – has taken hold. Early symptoms of infection by the GERM are visible in Ireland, with a strong culture of standardised testing and a constitutionally enshrined right to school choice. For now we are missing the final symptom: competition between schools. According to the OECD, countries adopting GERM policies see declines in academic results and increases in school segregation. Nevertheless, choice and competition remain seductive.
The result is that teachers end up focused on the relevant performance metrics, often to the exclusion of more worthy goals. Cheating happens, with teachers in Atlanta convicted on charges of racketeering. The changes drive people from the profession, with the UK struggling to recruit sufficient teachers, only half of whom see themselves in the job a decade from now. Schools optimise strategies to attract the best pupils and remove the worst, introducing policies such as 'silent corridors' that have the effect of causing the most vulnerable to withdraw or be excluded.
The problem is not confined to education. Metrics to improve hospital performance took nursing staff from caring duties to greet patients at the door, reducing waiting times, but also care. Medical report cards for doctors have led to disturbing results, doctors might avoid risky patients or provide overly aggressive medical care. In policing, various techniques evolved to improve metric performance, including choosing not to believe complainants, or downgrading serious incidents to less serious crimes.
But surely, the problem is merely insufficient data? Inappropriate metrics? This is what some policy-makers will tell us, but this is a dangerous mistake. As technology permits more data gathering at a lower cost, with ever more complex algorithms to analyse those data, we risk magnifying the problem, not solving it.
Metric madness does not fail out of a lack of precision, but due to a misunderstanding of fundamental public service values. Critiques of its precepts come from both left and right. On the left, we see Marxist critiques of metrics as increasing alienation, removing from workers that vital contact with creativity and judgement. On the right, we can see similar critiques, in particular from economist Friedrich Hayek's critique of the USSR's attempts to re-engineer an organic market economy through central planning – what he called the pretence of knowledge. His argument, that individuals are best placed to make use of their local knowledge to solve problems through entrepreneurial discovery, applies to the new manageralist culture of metric accountability just as it did to soviet planners.
The same problem arises: people are clever. They will apply their considerable ingenuity to satisfy any metric you choose, but often in unexpected and undesirable ways. This has been encapsulated as Goodhard's Law: 'Any measure used for control is unreliable.'
In a world where social trust is low, and made lower by rising economic inequality, it is not difficult to see why we seek to control the world's Sir Humphreys with apparently objective metrics. The fact is that choosing to measure is not a valueless, objective judgement. When we ignore caring as a value in health and education, because unlike waiting lists or test scores it cannot be easily measured, we subordinate care to output. That is a value judgement, and it changes the nature of our public services and the people who work in them. The problem is not precision, but ethics.
That is not to say we must stop counting. Metrics have their uses in identifying outliers, and informing experts. But too often, in our public discourse they crowd out important discussions of what matters, not just what can be measured.
Massacres of Vietnamese civilians, throwing a grenade down a well where kids are hiding – that increased body counts. It also increased the will of the Vietcong to fight to the bitter end. McNamara realised later in life that the unmeasurable value of empathy was missing from his strategy, and left the US unable to understand their enemy who were fighting for their country, not to meet a key performance indicator.
This was the winning paper at the Young Ireland Programme, which was held in September in North Queensferry. Patrick works for the Department of Justice and Equality, Ireland