Down to The Wire

“You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on, and as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is.”

Harsh words. They come from David Simon, creator of the HBO series “The Wire,” when journalist Bill Moyers interviewed him. We came across them in a recent blog post by the Bridgespan Group’s Daniel Stid, who muses about what we can learn from “The Wire”—the highly acclaimed crime drama set in inner-city Baltimore.

“I realized ‘The Wire’ has a lot to tell us about how and why performance measurement so often—and paradoxically—makes social problems worse instead of helping us solve them,” Stid wrote. “When performance measurement is about external accountability, priorities quickly get distorted and means (i.e., measures) become ends in themselves.”

Peter Drucker worried about essentially the same thing. “Everybody who ever watched the introduction of a budget system has seen this happen,” Drucker warned in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “For a long time—in some companies forever—realizing the budget figures becomes more important than what the budget is supposed to measure, namely economic performance. Managers, upon first being exposed to a budget system, often deliberately hold back sales and cut back profits rather than be guilty of ‘not making the budget.’ It takes years of experience and a very intelligent budget director to restore the balance.”

Photo credit: Pink Sherbert Photography

In some cases, the manipulation can be relatively subtle. “It may be possible to obtain objective statistics,” Drucker wrote in Men, Ideas, and Politics. “But to be meaningful, statistics have to be interpreted by human beings; and interpretations will differ radically with the political beliefs and desires of the interpreter—as witness the widely accepted 1945 forecast of 10 million unemployed in the United States by the spring of 1946, made in good faith by government experts interested in setting up a planned economy.”

Have you ever seen an organization massage and manipulate statistics? What happened in the end?