Why obsession with numbers makes us even more gullible

By Kamau Wairuri | Updated Sun, April 16th 2017 at 00:00 GMT +3

We are now in a world of alternative facts. We have fact-checkers who have been examining statements by our leaders.

Opponents and fact-checkers have challenged some statements that President Kenyatta made in his State of the Nation address earlier in the year. The most dramatic revolves around statistics on road construction where several inconsistencies have been noted in statements by government officials and official figures on the kilometres of roads paved since 2013. The other arena has been the last mile electricity connections. Beyond the inconsistencies between the President and other government officials, there was the expose published by The Sunday Standard recently on how Kenya Power was deliberating reporting ‘fake’ numbers to meet their targets, claims which the company has fought.

As Benjamin Disraeli, former British Prime Minister, is reputed to have said, “there are kind of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” Unsurprisingly, however, we have a fetish for numbers because we believe they represent strong evidence either for or against something.

We have taken to this self-delusion even when we know that people often use numbers to lie and that numbers do not speak for themselves.

Leaving that aside and returning to the last mile connection issue, wherever the ‘truth’ lies, the question we might want to ask is why a public agency would cook up numbers?

Beyond human nature, the fact that people generally lie, I think the answer lies in ‘deliverology’, the new science of delivery. This is a new approach to public sector management popularised around the world by the likes of Tony Blair and his former advisor Sir Michael Barber.

To simplify, the approach is founded on the idea that government should focus on a few critical agenda items and track progress aggressively to deliver the desired outcomes. The leader is encouraged to establish a dedicated delivery unit, under a strong powerful leader, to track progress and report. Civil servants have to provide data on progress on a regular basis, often in two weeks cycles. The data is then published in order to win public support and enhance accountability. Launching a delivery portal, showcasing all these successes, is a good way of doing this. All this sounds great. After all, we’ve all bought into the idea that ‘what gets measured gets done.’ Somehow we have become convinced that making government look more like the private companies is a good thing. Perhaps. Except for one simple thing: Campell’s law. Simplified, Campell’s law states that the more important a social indicator becomes to decision making, the more subject it becomes to corruption pressures.

Ingenenious ways

A good example is the UK, where this approach to public services came under tremendous attack especially due to the unintended and unforeseen, but certainly not unforeseeable, consequences on the care of patients in hospitals run by the National Health Service. As part of the targets for the Blair government, hospitals were required to treat patients within four hours of entering casualty in an attempt to deal with the long waits.

However, meeting this targets was difficult, if not impossible, for most facilities. So the hospitals came up with ingenious ways of getting around the targets. One report highlighted how some facilities started using ambulances as waiting rooms.

Since the clock didn’t start ticking until the patient had left the ambulance, hospitals refused to take patients in until they knew that they could attend to them within the set time. Other reviews showed that many patients were rushed through without proper assessment, with many being admitted to a hospital bed unnecessarily in the last 10 minutes of the four-hour mark. Targets were met at an incredible cost. The ‘do-gooders’ needed no more evidence that this would be the solution for ‘promising leaders’ in developing countries to get their ‘incompetent, unfocussed’ civil servants to deliver on the leader’s promises to the people.

As soon as they’d figure this out, the purveyors of the newest form of the neo-liberal civilising missing were on the next plane out of Heathrow heading to Asia and Africa. Here we are.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that numbers will be cooked and small things exaggerated beyond comprehension. After all, it is that season when we willingly subject ourselves to delusions. What is somewhat interesting is that the challengers are focussed on challenging ‘facts’ rather than approach. Which to me, implies that we have bigger problems than we currently think we have.

— The writer is a researcher and analyst in Nairobi. [email protected]

Originally published at www.standardmedia.co.ke on April 16, 2017.

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