Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Yes, Minister! Public service productivity

The BBC achieved a small triumph last night when it managed to follow a repeated Yes, Minister episode from 1981 concerning a hospital with no patients with a Newsnight special on the difficulty of measuring public-sector productivity and the temptation for politicians to exploit this by using dodgy figures. This is something the Ranter touches on quite frequently, especially when Oliver "Chubby" Letwin is concerned. (Note - I've given him Roy "Chubby" Brown's nickname not least because he'd look better in Roy's famous helmet.) Astonishingly enough, PMQs today was all about public service productivity figures.

The basic problem, of course, is of valuing a non-marketed product and of measuring its quality. This is illustrated by the Teacher's Fallacy - if you measure the labour productivity of a school by the throughput of pupils over the number of teacher hours, the productivity figure goes up the more kids you stuff into each class. But no-one in the world thinks that increasing class sizes does the children anything other than a power of bad. Obviously the missing dimension is quality. Grades are one measure, but the problem arises of linking this to expense (either on teachers or on goods), even without considering the problem of comparing widely varying schools. The vacuity of most statistics on these issues gives loads of scope for the obfuscation we discussed on here a while ago. Newsnight picked up on this, pointing out Chubby Letwin's love of comparing irrevelancies - the Department for Work and Pensions being as big as Sheffield, for example. On that one, Chubby was pinged with the obvious question as to which town it should be as big as. He replied that suggesting a city would be "invidious", which begged the question why he did it.

All in all, the juxtaposition went a long way to reminding me how much of politics is ritualised and never changes at all. Some things do. Yes, Minister's scriptwriters were working in the late-70s/early-80s cuts culture and the row was about a new hospital with 500 staff and no patients. The principle holds.

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