Failure to Account for Jars of Raspberry Jam (in a Sandstorm)

We need a Raft of Measures. Source: Moose Allain https://www.worldofmoose.com/

Clerks and Copy-Boys or Winning the War? You can’t have both. A friend recently sent me a copy of a letter from the Duke to Wellington, August 1812, to the British Foreign Office, London.

Just to put the letter in context. At the time, Wellington was on the way to Madrid, ‘dragging an army over barren plains’. Attempting to defeat Napoleon and remove the French armies from Spain. It wasn’t an ‘easy’ day at the office.

In the midst of the warfare, Wellington was required to ‘account’ for the resources at his disposal. An audit if you like. The letter (see below) explains the challenges of carrying out such a measurement exercise, under difficult circumstances. Wellington specifically apologies for the ‘hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm’.

Wellington wraps up the letter with an important basic question. What do you want me to do? Measure things or win a war? I can’t do both!

Source: Center for Global Development. Andrew Natsios 2010 https://www.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/1424271_file_Natsios_Counterbureaucracy.pdf

You can’t have both. Depending on your point of view, Wellington’s letter could be; an entirely factual statement, mildly humorous or a deeply sarcastic dig at bureaucracy. Wellington does have a point though, which is why my friend “insisted” I read it. But, what if there is another viewpoint…?

Chasing fraud during a pandemic. If you want to put ‘jars of raspberry jam’ into perspective, have a read of this from the Institute of Government: ‘Lord Agnew is right: Covid support write-offs merit more resources’. Some of the numbers quoted in the article are eye-wateringly large. But the thing to concentrate on is that almost £5 Billion of grants, business support loans and other handouts have already been written off to fraud and criminal activity. It’s also worth noting that ‘more could have been done’ to put a few checks and balances in place at the start of the system. It’s a sobering read, particularly if you are a tax payer, with the prospect of shouldering this burden for many years to come.

I think it would be a fair assumption that even the Duke of Wellington might have asked for a few more Clerks, Copy-Boys, Accountants and Counter Fraud Specialists to do a bit of measuring in the circumstances…

The Goldilocks Zone of Measurement. So where does this leave us? Measuring things is an extremely difficult pastime. I’ve spent more time than I’d ever imagined talking about it, observing it, trying things and going back to talking about it. I’ve even written things about it.

  • The Dangerous Olive of Evidence. This looks at the problem around what we actually measure. Evidence is just like an olive. There are many things we could measure (the green/black olive flesh) but we just tend to focus on the easily quantifiable, hard, generally money focused things (the woody olive pip).
  • Outcome Measurement is a Dead Cobra. This tries to unpick the challenges of creating measures (to hold people to account) for complex situations. The Dead Cobra is just a way of explaining how the act of measurement can lead to unintended consequences.

The point for me in all of this is that it isn’t a binary choice where you can have one or the other, not both. Either ‘Copy-Boys or Winning the War’, not both. There has to be a happy medium around this, the Goldilocks Zone of not too hot and not too cold, but ‘just right’. Getting to ‘just right’ does of course take time and effort. But there are plenty of things that could help you down that path. From my perspective;

  • Will the measurement activity help or hinder them in delivering their objectives? (If it’s mostly hinder, expect some Duke of Wellington push-back)
  • Is it in proportion to the scale of activity and the risks? (Lost jars of Raspberry Jam in sandstorm, really?)
  • What does the measurement activity cost? Somebody is paying for this. (I always liked the example of a grant giving body that kept it’s administration fees at around the 2.5% mark).

Co-creating the Measures. Finally, this might not be popular with some of the people who do measurement, but why not ask the punters?

Most of them aren’t out to do bad stuff, and most of them are as concerned about the people committing fraud and doing bad stuff as you (and the rest of us) are. If you came up with a system that properly involved the ‘good honest people’ helping to shape the measurement, there might be a change in how they engage with it? It might even release some resources to do the measurement that really needs doing…?

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Measurement isn’t a neutral activity. It takes time, effort and usually has an impact. Time, effort and impact that could be diverting people away from the important stuff (Removing Napoleon from Spain).
  2. Measurement should have a ‘businesses case’ that is as robust as the business case for the things the measurement system intends to measure. Including a value for money assessment.
  3. How about getting the punters to help co-create the measurement systems?

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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