The Lowe-down: Toby Lowe on rethinking accountability in complex systems
- 17 July 2019
- Posted by: Helen Nicol
- Category: News
Two team members at the Centre for Public Impact recently did an interview with Toby Lowe, in which he talks about reassessing the way we do accountability in public services in the light of complexity and other such systems-centric frameworks. Lowe isn’t pulling any punches here:
The current system, based on the New Public Management approach, also offers an overly simplistic way of assessing the work of people who implement public policy by performance-measuring them against purely quantitative targets. It assumes they need external motivation and should be rewarded or penalised accordingly. Public servants are held to account for hitting targets they almost certainly, in reality, don’t control. This only serves to encourage the manipulation of data — further supporting the lie of simple outcomes in a complex world.
(That sound you just heard? That was the sound of fifty thousand underfunded and overworked research sociologists muttering “we told you so” from behind a teetering stack of Research Excellence Framework documents.)
Lowe continues his attack on the religion of quantification:
We need to think differently about measurement. We are very exercised by the question “What should we measure?” It’s important, but it’s secondary to the question “Why are we measuring?” If we measure to make ourselves accountable to others (to ‘demonstrate our impact’, for example) we become subject to Campbell’s Law — the act of measurement corrupts the process it is intended to monitor. Instead, we should measure for learning — and use learning as the driver for performance improvement (rather than accountability). This is the appropriate reason to measure outcomes (or anything else). Measuring in a way that helps us to learn is partly about the effective capture of both quantitative and qualitative data and partly about deciding what to capture in any given context — ideally the data should be chosen by the people doing the work.
(For those already plugged in to some of these arguments, you might recognise Campbell’s Law as a close relative of Goodhart’s Law, which was coined around the same time in the mid-1970s, and subsequently integrated into critiques of the Thatcher administration… which may go some way to explain why its message has been so antithetical to the prevailing ideology of public services in more recent times.)
Lowe goes on to outline ways of putting these ideas into practice, most of which involve accepting that making the “right” decision is all but impossible in a complex system, and encouraging a culture of learning and reflection in public service wherein the inevitable errors and mistakes are seen as opportunities for improvement. Go read the whole thing, why don’t you?