Performance measurement: impossible or essential? Alnoor Ebrahim gets me thinking

Harvard’s Alnoor Ebrahim gave a very nice talk during our our Philanthropy and Nonprofit seminar yesterday; I feel rather bucked in that I lured a number of my planning colleagues to attend and a bunch of my PhD students. Alnoor was one of my favorite colleagues when I was at VT, and his talk was really quite informative. He focused in depth on the extent to which foundations and nonprofits attempt to formulate performance indicators for social phenemena in order to nail down both controls and causality. Many organizations can’t go that deep: they just count clients served or outputs in some way. Still, others do try to measure such abstruse things as child poverty reduction or economic development, and he is attempting to derive theory about what leads organizations to do that, and what organizations–funders or the nonprofits themselves–are really in a position to examine outcomes.

He started us off with a question that I found myself rather fascinated with: is performance measurement impossible or essential? He referred us to some lectures worth listening to by Onora O’Neil for the BBC called “A Matter of Trust.” Alnoor raised her points about the problems with performance measurement, but he never really returned to them as, from there, he focusses in on the state of the practice in the field. The two big concerns about the measurement focus that I gleaned from O’Neil were:

1. It’s possible that our focus on measurement causes us to disregard what is difficult to measure about progress in the social sphere, and thus, the missions and strategies of helping institutions become rather small and constrained. That is, the bean-counting causes us to focus on beans that can be counted, rather than seeking to deal with social issues in all their difficult-to-measure complexity; and

2. There are transactions costs and compliance costs associated with all these performance measures, and the more of our resources we expend on measuring how well we’ve done at delivering service means fewer resources with which to actually deliver service. Making funding contingent on the ability to demonstrate that service is delivered in a particular way may favor those institutions who are good at #1 (cherry picking easy things) and #2.

Neither of which strike me as particularly good for social policy, though you can measure the last one.

#FirstWorldProblems hashtag thrown

This item crossed my desk via Business Insider’s Fboo feed. Here’s the original ad.

Business Insider then posted a follow up, reporting that people got angry over the ad largely because the #FirstWorldProblems label on twitter means exactly that: a sardonic admission that these aren’t, in fact, real problems. The ad, therefore, alienates the very people who are actually aware of their privileges.

Yah, sure, whatever, taking a tweet out of context may not be fair, but, jeez, people, this is a world where you get tweet about your minuscule problems while other people die for lack of water. So, yes, fair would be an issue, but not the issue you’re making it out to be. If the misinterpretation of the tweets leads to greater awareness about people living in poverty, who cares? If you have the ability to look sardonically at your own problems that are not problems, then let other people use that, too. It’s not about making you feel validated for being aware of your privilege: it’s about raising awareness about poverty and resource deprivation in Haiti.

On why livability is different from sustainability

I really like this essay over at from Alan Pisarski about “Livability and All That”.

Pisarski writes:

In an unkind moment a reporter asked the present DOT Secretary Ray LaHood what he meant by livable, given that the department had just added it to its criteria for giving away money. He replied vaguely it was something about being able to walk to work and the park and a restaurant, to a doctor and a few more things.

Well it turns out I was living the livable life style when I was growing up in Queens, New York in the fifties and didn’t know it. Here all along I just thought we were poor.

The quote captures so much about the newest incarnation of pro-environmental, pro-urban-density, pro-transit packaged thinking that I’m troubled by. First–way to go, Alan. As a kid who came from a farm family with no money, it irritates me the way people equate professors with class privilege all the time. Yes, we have privilege, and many, many of my colleagues come from families that had money. But others of us took a long road out of poverty to get to the academy, and if we succeed (which isn’t easy), we become like men without a country: we no longer belong to our working class or poor roots (where people are as likely to spit at us for being elite if they don’t know where we came from) nor do we belong among the never-been-hungry people who surround us.

But more than that, I like how the quote helps us contrast livability with sustainability. I hear it constantly: that livability is just sustainability in a new guise. It’s not. Sustainability has take its own knocks for being ill-defined, but livability privileges local comfort and amenity over other environmental goals. There’s nothing wrong with livability, but sustainability it is not.

I started trouble at dinner the other night saying that i don’t think that Manhattan is sustainable, no matter how livable it is. Please. A walking environment for I-bankers who jet off to global playspaces and hold the strings of a global capitalist world that is killing the environments of the global poor? Oh, but they walk and bike more so IT MUST BE SUSTAINABLE. Yay, us. I suppose it is marginally better if the corporate class (me included) takes transit rather than drives, but we are fools to forget the marginality of that improvement–the rearranging-the-deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic aspects of it.

I understand Manhattan is more than just I-bankers and the global rich, but…it still has I-bankers and the global rich, and their participation in the destruction of environments doesn’t begin and end with whether they drive a car–no matter how fixated environmentalists, planners, and people like LaHood have become with treating cars like the only environmental problem Americans have dirty hands on.

Don’t blame you, don’t blame me, blame the driver behind the tree…

Camden, NJ, Chris Hedge’s “indictment” of academia, and poverty reporting

I recently became rather annoyed at Chris Hedges pointing his finger at academics as liberals who have abandoned working people and progressive causes. This NPR story was circulated via the delightful Frank Popper via Facebook, which started up the usual whine that “professors have all this power and they don’t use it, or one proffie was mean to me once, so clearly academics have abandoned The Cause.”

Sure, yeah–universities are corporate–heaven knows I work at one. And there are plenty of academics that are only out for themselves. But what annoys me about Hedges–and the response–is that it’s so knee-jerk, one-dimensional and stereotyped. Can professors be abusive? Sure. Why would they as a group be any different than any other people when they hold the position of “boss”? People are people, with human failings, in every context. If we weren’t all working at essentially the same place with essentially the same people, Dilbert wouldn’t be as funny as it is.

But when you want to rage against the machine, you might want to ask: is the person/institution you are raging against capable of

  • putting hundreds out of work to give themselves supra-normal profits with one decision?
  • stealing people’s pensions and impoverishing elders?
  • torturing and killing your family and neighbors?
  • writing $163 million dollar checks like it’s nothing to get yourself elected into a highly influential public office?

My colleagues and I certainly make a comfortable living, but we had to save to buy our small houses and condos–we are, simply, not in that league, except for those who came in with family money.

I’m not saying big-money universities are good thing or that they have clean hands. I’m also willing to believe that higher education should take their lumps at budget times with everybody else: I’m unprepared to put higher education before foster kids in the state’s budgets, at least not without more study.

I AM saying that Yale and Kansas State are worlds apart in the influence they hold, and treating them like they are the same–or that they are in the same power universe as a Goldman Sachs or the Meg Whitmans of this world strikes me as being both inaccurate and a bit self-serving of Hedges. After all, if everybody BUT you has abandoned the poor, then suddenly you are very very important as the Voice of The Poor. There’s a little too much “don’t blame you, don’t blame me, blame the guy the behind the tree–those other people, the media, academics, Rush Limbaugh” about Hedges, who lined his nest quite comfortably I suspect when he was part of the mainstream media, whom he says is Part of the Problem, at the New York Times.

And that’s the irritating thing. Hedges, Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Klein make a pretty comfortable living being “the voice of the poor.” Now, I think Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, is excellent. But if I’m in moral hazard territory because I make my living researching poverty rather than solving poverty, I kind of have to wonder whether what they are up to is really all that better than what I do or don’t do.

Here’s an example of how Hedge’s arguments are rather self-serving and contradictory:

In this issue of the Nation, Hedges has an article about Camden, NJ: City of Ruins. Nice enough piece, only there is little of substance that hasn’t already been said by an academic, Howard Gillette, Jr., in his book published five years ago: Camden After Fall. (If you haven’t read it, drop what you are doing and read it right now, along with American Project by Sudhir Venkatesh)

So the question: are academics really the craven sell-outs who don’t grapple with hard issues and poverty, or does Mr. Hedges need to read more?

At some point, all of us who write about poverty and inequality run the same danger: leering instead of doing. I’m all for people writing about Camden–the more attention it gets, the better, unless the attention is on the leering side, which Hedges’ piece comes pretty close to doing in the way he trades on the images of strong, spiritual black women.

Every year or so, some senator decides he’s going to live on food stamps–and finds out that living on food stamps sucks. Quelle surprise. Or some some supermodel puts on a fat suit and discovers! OMG! That being pretty has given her unearned perk after unearned perk. Or somebody decides to live among the homeless, and discovers that homeless people are human beings (wow!) and have souls but live hard. Why can’t we believe it when the single mom on food stamps tells us that it’s not enough to sustain a family? Surely, single moms do say such things. It’s pretty simple to me: it’s not that we don’t believe her, it’s that we don’t care to intervene either publicly or privately, and after the senator’s “discovery”, we go back to business as usual. Ditto with all those other examples: we go back to stepping over homeless people, etc.

That strikes me as a much bigger, more authentic source of trouble than whether proffies are doing right by the poor. No, proffies aren’t. Most of the rest of the world isn’t, either. So what is academia? Is academia represented by celebrity scholars like Joe Stiglitz, or people, like my colleague David Sloane, who has worked for years with poor neighborhoods to virtually no celebrity–but to fairly substantial efficacy?

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