Excursion into Uncharted Waters

You may have noticed for a few weeks now I have had a list of books I am currently reading on the right. (Incidentally, Librarything.com is a great, easy way to manage this list.) Some may have been surprised by the addition of Rudolph Giuliani’s Leadership to the list. Well, what happened was this. I came across a evangelical pastor (probably presby – I can’t remember) who recommended occasionally reading books like this. There is much common grace wisdom to be found in such works. So, I added it to my Amazon wish list (see right) and forgot about it. Lo, and behold! someone bought me it at Christmas.

I started reading it a few weeks ago on and off. I picked it up again last night. It has a funny effect on me. It takes me back to my days in secular employment – the world of people skills, decision-making, performance indicators de-dum, de-dum, de-dum. Enjoyable in a kind of nerdy way. Giulliani writes well and the book is not a dry scientific ‘how-to’ manual so much as an anecdotal account of what he learned in his time as mayor of New York. Interesting, though not for everyone.

I read a comment last night which got me thinking along a track I usually steer clear of, so forgive me if my comments seem superficial. One often hears of people complaining in the UK of the way the government seeks to manage public services. The problem is perceived to be that treating them as businesses somehow makes them more impersonal. This has been going on for a couple of decades or more in the UK, stimulated I think by Margaret Thatcher’s treating everything as a market place and users of services as ‘consumers’. In the NHS, for example, patients are treated as consumers of health services. Labour has steered clear of this terminology but is still strongly advocates effective management of resources, making ample use of performance indicators and targets to get results.

In response to this one hears a regular outcry that patients, or children in the education system, or victims of crime are people not statistics. They are quite right, but the statement is often made as though it is in opposition to management use of statistical data.

Now, what about Giulliani? Here is something he said that caught my attention. He was talking about the management of foster care in NY and commenting on the fact that no-one had really looked at the data before to see how effective the service was. But his system seemed to work:

One doesn’t want to think of children as inventory, but the fact that no-one wanted to look critically at the problem lest they be labeled insensitive meant that the actual conditions for these children declined. The old saying around the Child Welfare Administration was that the nobility of intention was enough. Because there were no performance criteria, there were no outcome measures. The bottom line for the 280 children removed from worst-performing contractor was that they ended up with an agency that had effectively fared much better. (pp. 94,95, emphasis mine)

Did you get that? People who are able to think macroscopically and think in terms of performance outcomes – i.e. that nasty word, statitistics – are extremely valuable in delivering better services to real individuals. So next time you hear some well-meaning person on the news waxing lyrical about the need to treat people as people as though this was what management of public services was missing, then perhaps we need to examine that statement more critically.

Now, I will get into my bunker…

Excursion into Uncharted Waters