Monday, March 28, 2005

Measurement as a tool

An article on Unionradio's website caught my eye today. Though it was nothing exceptional in itself -- simply the edited opinions of a university professor specialising in public policy who believes that the Venezuelan government's social missions are inefficient -- it struck a chord.

A few years ago, a U.S. professor held a lecture at my university. He used one phrase that has stuck in my memory ever since: "If you can measure it, you can improve it." This, too, sounds like nothing special, but describes an amazingly powerful tool in almost all areas of social interaction. In the area of public administration, institutions that measure their own performance soon start improving it. It appears to be almost inevitable. As soon as individuals can see how they're doing, they try to do better (unless there are more powerful counter-incentives, of course).

Obviously, this does not just work in companies or public organizations. It also works on the level of governments. That is what makes the democratic system so successful when it is allowed to work properly: elections can be seen as a measurement instrument that gauges an government's performance in terms of how satisfied voters are. The better a government performs and the more citizens are satisfied as a consequence, the more votes it receives -- and the greater is the likelihood that it will be allowed to continue governing.

This is why tampering with the election mechanism, as was blatantly done before last year's recall referendum in Venezuela, is more than simply a disenfranchisement of voters (or, at the very least, a dilution of their votes): it is practically a guarantee for inefficiency in government. A government that is not accountable to its voters, that is as intransparent as black ink in an inkwell, that spins information and distorts facts on a permanent basis, has no incentive to perform efficiently. Corruption and squandering of resources on an immense scale are sure to follow.

This is interesting because an intransparent government provides little concrete data for factually establishing that resources are being wasted. But in spite of this, the inefficiency cannot be hidden: the intransparency itself is circumstantial, but no less incontestable proof. As shown in the article below, a lack of measurement can lead not only to resources being wasted, but even to lives being lost as resources are invested in the wrong areas.

Questioning the efficiency of the government’s social “Missions”

Marino González, an expert in public policy and professor at Simon Bolívar University, believes that the results of the government’s “Mission” programmes do not fulfil expectations because they follow political aims rather than [social] objectives such as helping citizens solve their problems.

“We are confusing measures with goals. The strategy of the Missions has much more to do with elements of an ideological or political nature than with services directed towards the communities. Barrio Adentro, for instance, has not been providing any information on its activities since January 2004. The data they do have only indicates the number of persons attended to, but does not provide any information on the types of problems solved”, said González.

One instance of the inefficiency of the policies the government is applying in the area of health, according to González, are the recent mortality rates as presented by the Ministry of Health.

“In 2003, the infant mortality rate increased in two consecutive years from 18.2 to 18.5, which is primarily a consequence of the increase of easily preventable illnesses such as lung disease, the incidence of which increased by 40 percent, and digestive disorders such as diarrhea, which increased by more than 30 percent,” he explained.

González believes that the mortality rates “confirm that in Venezuela, malnutrition is a public health problem that should be a focus of public policy, and in terms of mother-child care, the state does not dispose of any adequate services for avoiding the deaths.”

“President Chávez’s government is working towards building and extending an immense, inefficient state structure that consumes many resources and that is completely removed from the real problems of the citizens; military, political, and strategic objectives take precedence over what is happening to citizens on the street”, added the public policy expert.

He believes that it is because of this strategy that the government “cannot hide a large number of failures in companies, extending from electricity generation to any other type of production”.

In González’s opinion, Venezuelans should be worried about the perspectives offered by a country with large income on the one hand, but disproportionate expenses on the other hand. These resources, which should be directed towards areas such as health, education, social security – which is what gives us quality of life – are not being controlled or monitored.

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