The numbers are what counts


The officer was making a presentation on the performance in the third quarter. The chair interrupter with a series of rhetorical questions which highlighted an area where performance had dipped. The officer attempted to explain the figures only to be rebuffed with “the numbers can’t hear you”. Which turned out to be the signal that the meeting was over? The message was clear we’re not interested in excuses we want results.

The officer in this case was a senior police officer, the statistics were crime figure clear up rates and the scene was from “Dexter” a TV thriller from the USA but it could have been a board room anywhere in the NHS, a local authority scrutiny committee or a school governors meeting. The point is an obsession with the numbers is now a characteristic of the public sector.

Reducing everything to numbers is a bad thing because the public sector is not in the business of selling tins of baked beans it is about helping patients, pupils and vulnerable people. The nature of the “business” means that staff motivation cannot be generated by simple targets or easily measured out comes. This doesn’t mean that nurses don’t want to see waiting list come down or that teachers don’t want more pupils pass exams it means that nurses want to focus on the patients needs not the discharge rates and teachers want to focus on the pupils needs not the exam pass rates and in the same way GPs want to focus on getting the treatment right not the drugs bill just as housing officers want to see people properly housed as opposed to simply getting them off the housing list. In short public sector professionals want to be able to do a good job not a good enough job.

So isn’t it time to remind the media , politicians and senior managers that statistics are a tool that they can never give the whole picture and that management cannot be reduce to numbers , be they budget figures, performance stats or position in the league table?

Blair McPherson author of People management in a harsh financial climate published by Russell House follow Blair on Twitter @blairmcpherson1



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