That kind of measure is never going to be very sophisticated, but it can provide an early warning system in the NHS which – in a highly centralised control system – is pretty important, as Mid Staffs Hospital showed.
Of course, there are pressures to make it more sophisticated, to add numbers and measure progress. There are arguments for doing this in theory, but not many in practice – because it rapidly becomes useless. Goodhart’s Law takes over. The numbers are gamed by managers and staff alike. They accrete perverse incentives. They become meaningless.
Hardly a day goes by now without me being contacted by phone, text or email by one of the organisations I’ve dealt with, asking me to rate the service or performance I have just received.
Often these are accompanied by a request from the call centre staff member, or even the public service staff, to give them a 5 – the prevailing orthodoxy in the world of management fads suggests that a five-point scale is somehow necessary.
These ratings have now become another meaningless prop to the HR regime of organisations too big to show leadership effectively to their staff. They are no longer about taking the temperature of the organisation. They are about the central control of the staff.
This is the tyranny of numbers in operation and it transforms me from a client of a professional into an opportunity for the Pavlovian dogs to earn their blessed 5. I am de-humanised by it as much as they are, transformed by the numbers into simplistic laboratory rats.
I know it seems tough to refuse to rate staff. They may treat you worse as a result. But if we want to take an effective stand against the tyranny of numbers and targets, that’s what we have to do.
Give them feedback, discuss performance by all means. Its useful, after all. But refuse to use a numerical scale.
If we can do that in sufficient numbers, we have some chance of undermining this pernicious tyranny of central computers over local staff. So who's with me?
Let's do it now. Take the pledge with me. No more customer service ratings from this day forward. OK, repeat after me....
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