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How the British government rules by algorithm - by Bagehot for the Economist

Updated: Aug 31, 2020

The over-enthusiastic application of scientific management is weakening the public sector

Bagehot for the Economist - August 20th 2020

IN ONE OF his travels Gulliver finds himself on the flying island of Laputa. The king, “observing how ill I was clad”, sends a tailor to make him a suit. The tailor “first took my altitude by a quadrant, and then, with a rule and compasses, described the dimensions and outlines of my whole body, all of which he entered upon paper.” Six days later he “brought my clothes very ill made, and quite out of shape, by happening to mistake a figure in the calculation”.

This week much the same happened to the British exam system. An algorithm designed to solve the problem posed by the pandemic, which prevented children from sitting their exams, instead created another of the disasters which have punctuated the government’s crisis-management. Thousands of children got lower grades than they expected and the government was forced to perform a screeching U-turn. The algorithm has now been junked and children are being classified on the basis of teacher assessments.

But the decision to use quadrants, rules and compasses to measure children was not the consequence of the crisis. It is in keeping with the notion of scientific management which pervades Britain’s public sector.

Scientific management rests on four pillars: handing power from front-line workers to general managers; measuring everything you can; setting goals and targets; and linking targets to rewards. The term was invented by Frederick Taylor, an early 20th-century American management guru, who used targets to improve the production of pig iron. But it has deeper roots in Britain. Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher, dreamed of turning government into a utility-maximising machine. Robert Lowe, a Liberal politician, introduced a system for paying schools by results in 1867.

Scientific management retreated in the face of popular fury: Charles Dickens satirised it in the person of Mr Gradgrind, who wanted to “weigh and measure every parcel of human nature”. F.R. Leavis, a literary critic, dubbed it “technologico-Benthamism”. But it returned with a vengeance in the 1980s, driven by a combination of Thatcherism and IT. The defeat of trade unions shifted power to managers. Centralisation encouraged government to favour Whitehall wisdom over local knowledge. The fashion for permanent reorganisation created yet more demand for managers. Tony Blair’s New Labour identified managerialism with modernisation.

There is much to be said for scientific management if it is carefully applied. In schools, standardised tests can reveal whether children are learning. In policing, statistics can be used to focus resources effectively. In development, targets to vaccinate entire populations have been effective.

But badly applied, scientific management can lead to disaster. The A-level mess was a classic. Individuals were judged on the basis not just of their own performance, but also of their institutions’ performance the previous year. The gross unfairness was compounded by the fact that the system favoured private schools.

Targets create three common problems. They produce perverse results when people focus excessively on them. They tempt managers to manipulate numbers. The obsession with measurement diverts people from useful activity to filling in forms.

The department of health provided a fine example of the first when it penalised hospitals whose emergency departments took too long to treat patients after ambulances had dropped them off. Hospitals responded by keeping patients waiting in ambulances rather than in emergency departments.

The Metropolitan Police illustrated the second, after it linked pay and promotion to achieving a crime-reduction target. A police whistle-blower told a parliamentary committee that downgrading or underreporting crime had become “an ingrained part of police culture”.

The universities to which A-level students are struggling to get admitted provide an example of the third. Tenure and promotion are awarded on the basis of the production of articles (which can be measured) rather than teaching (which can’t), so students suffer.

Mr Johnson’s government should be sensitive to the problem. Brexit was driven in part by a revolt against distant bureaucrats making decisions on the basis of abstract formulae. Tories love to complain about “so-called experts” and “targets gone mad”. One of the party’s favourite philosophers, Michael Oakeshott, put his finger on what is wrong with what he called “rationalism”. Rationalism rests on the idea that the most important form of knowledge is technical knowledge which can be reduced to formulas or recipes. But the most important form of knowledge is often the practical sort which is embedded in the heads of front-line workers.

Rather than preserving what is best in scientific management and mixing it with pragmatism and local knowledge, Mr Johnson is making the problem worse. The government remains fixated on targets: Gavin Williamson, the secretary of state for education, stuck to his algorithm because he was more concerned with preventing grade inflation than working out a fair outcome for students. It also remains besotted with the science of management: the boss of the body that is replacing Public Health England, axed for supposed mismanagement of the pandemic, is not a public-health expert but the former boss of a telecoms company.

Given the government’s record, you don’t need a fancy algorithm to predict that there is worse to come. Mr Johnson’s key adviser, Dominic Cummings, often acts as if he comes from Laputa rather than Durham. The Laputans live on a floating rock and spend their time contemplating geometry and counting comets. Mr Cummings fills his blog with admiring references to “cognitive technologies” and predicts a future in which “there will be trillions of self-replicating robots on the asteroid belt”. The Laputans build houses without right angles, wear clothes that don’t fit, and get so lost in “intense speculations” that they have to be periodically brought back to reality by being hit on the head with bladders filled with pebbles. They lack the one thing that is essential to good government: the gift of common sense.■

This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "Rule by algorithm"

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