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Inspiral Targets: the measurement of everything and the value of nothing

People seemed to like my message that certainty is overrated. Uncertainty, complexity, modesty and admitting fallibility seem all together more human and more popular. Maybe that is exciting and inspiring.

Dan Gregory, of Common Capital, makes the case for ‘uncertainty, complexity and modesty’, as he reflects on his recent keynote presentation at The Centre for Youth Impact Gathering 2017.

Dan has over 10 years’ experience of funding and financing voluntary and social enterprises, through developing policy at the highest level and delivering in practice at the grassroots. He has worked for the Treasury and the Cabinet Office where he led the development of government policy on third sector access to finance, social investment and the role of the sector in service delivery. Dan spends some of his time at Social Enterprise UK and also works independently under the banner of Common Capital.

I’m not much of a natural public speaker. Certainly not an exciting or inspiring one. So when I am invited to speak at a conference or event, I try to be at least informative. To try to satisfy the audience with substance if not style. So lots of facts, evidence, insight or expertise from a field I have worked in for a decade and more. Talking from the solid ground of territory I know well and feel comfortable upon.

Sometimes this goes down well. But other times I sense the audience feels a bit bombarded with wonk grenades. They don’t seem to really warm to me, they feel my facts and evidence are a bit relentless and dry. They don’t ask questions afterwards because, frankly, they’ve had enough already, thanks.

Recently I spoke at The Centre for Youth Impact Gathering 2017: Shaping the future of impact measurement. The event was for practitioners, researchers and funders with an interest in learning, evidence and evaluation in work with young people.

It seemed to go very well. A few people said afterwards that they really valued my presentation. In an unprecedented turn of events, a few even told me they enjoyed it. This was confusing for me because, to be honest, I wasn’t really sure what I was talking about and certainly wasn’t on solid ground. Frankly, I don’t really know much about social impact measurement. I’m not an economist or accountant. I’m not a social impact guru or measurement Maharishi. I haven’t got a social impact measuring stick. So why did it seem to go so well, at least compared to normal?

In short, my presentation was about how social impact measurement is largely a load of rubbish. Although not entirely. I started off admitting I was a bit of a fraud and didn’t have any technical expertise as such. But I do have a broad perspective, having worked in and around this area for 15 years now, in government and outside, and from watching the rise of new fields of social impact measurement, social impact bonds and so on.

So why would someone argue that social impact measurement is a load of nonsense?

Perhaps above all, because the world is just too complex to reduce to the logic of input > output > outcome > impact. Such linearity is a joke. Perhaps this works in the laboratory - in very controlled and restricted conditions. But out in the field, people are more complex than bacteria, social programmes are not vaccines, homeless people are not a disease. As social innovation guru Geoff Mulgan has pointed out, evidence can be as unreliable and contingent as humans are irrational and unpredictable. Mulgan has described how, “Unlike molecules, which follow the rules of physics rather obediently, human beings have minds of their own, and are subject to many social, psychological, and environmental forces…. Very few domains allow precise predictions about what causes will lead to what effects.” Sadly, later in the same article, he subsequently suggests his own, new, social impact measurement methodology as the answer to this problem, immediately undoing all his good work in rising above the fray, and bringing himself down to the level of the more common or garden impact measuring gun for hire. 

Second, and related to complexity, is the realisation that the impact of any action is always to some degree context specific - to a particular family, community or individual, for instance. Until the day arrives when we are able to construct multiple realities, it remains impossible to ever really know what would have happened otherwise. Randomised Control Trials, for instance, might tell us what happened elsewhere but not what would have happened here. And even RCTs are somewhat problematic. Beyond the issue of their considerable expense, even the World Health Organisation is losing faith in RCTs - “As the complexity of interventions or contexts increases, randomization alone will rarely suffice to identify true causal mechanisms.”

Third, as Zhou Enlai once pointed out, when it comes to impact, it’s just too early to say. When is impact? Perhaps my biggest professional fear is that charities and social enterprise have been doing such a good job for the last few decades in mitigating the worst excesses of capitalism, mopping up the problems and making just enough of a difference to hold together our society that would otherwise rip apart at the seams, that we have kept our prevailing economic system in place just long enough to allow it to do irreparable environmental damage to our planet, putting at risk all life on earth! Add up all those SROI ratios from among our sector and how’s that for impact?

Fourth, and more practically, half the social impact metrics we use are total nonsense. Lives touched, for instance, is one of the most common and sadly, not even the most ludicrous of the currencies we circulate. How do Stalin and the Chuckle Brothers measure up against that yardstick? Even if we did somehow develop less blunt and limited methodologies, they would be inevitably discredited by some other new social impact salesperson within weeks, hawking a supposedly new and improved model. Some of the metrics out there are frankly a total sham. I have listened to panellists at events describe how they have methodologies endorsed by The Pope and Will.I.Am which can calculate your social impact in under 7 seconds. Yet no-one calls these charlatans out.

Fifth, social impact measurement can bring accompanying dangers. Maybe metrics can tell us what happened in the past but that doesn’t mean they can tell us what to do in future. The world changes. What works changes.  Not acknowledging this may bring dangerous consequences. Measurement can be dangerous if it is used to influence behaviour, often creating perverse incentives. Italian fireman paid by results start lighting fires to put out. Big outsourcing companies are rewarded for dead people not reoffending. NHS Patients are unable to book appointments with their GP more than two weeks in advance. In fact, as researchers have concluded, “Target based performance management always creates gaming”.

Finally, social impact measurement can be expensive, bringing negative or little benefit while diverting resources away from other work. Metrics can also be demotivating for staff and volunteers at charities and social enterprises, undermining their public service ethos, crowding out creativity, freedom, intuition, trust and the human touch.

So much for social impact measurement then. What a waste of everyone’s time?

Well largely, yes. But not entirely. I concluded my presentation by suggesting a different tack and one which seemed to go down quite well. Much of my frustration with this field is that social impact measurement always seems so sure of itself. “You have to get better at measuring your impact “ they say. “Of course it’s possible” they proclaim. That can be really annoying. So with that in mind, I also admitted where I might, in fact, be wrong.

First, if clinical tests and trials and RCTs have brought us so far forward in medicine and the health profession then perhaps it’s only a matter of time before we develop similar capabilities for better understanding wider fields of human activity. Who knows how far technological advances and artificial intelligence might take us in future?

Second, perhaps our metrics and methodologies will get less stupid. Jeremy Nicholls of Social Value UK - who has done more than anyone to advance this somewhat preposterous cause - is nevertheless doing a fantastic job in building bridges and overcoming divides between competing schools of metrics. Jeremy – and other good folk like Tris Lumley at NPC - have been working hard for many years to get the social auditors to agree to shared principles with the SROI merchants and to find common cause among competing clans. This can only be a good thing. Now we just need to call out the charlatans.

Third, and a point which Jeremy himself makes well, even if the numbers are nonsense, the process of social impact measurement, done well, can serve to empower those who are too often forgotten by charities, social enterprises, government and funders. Maybe the calculations and the spreadsheets and the ratios turn out to be meaningless. But if they were developed in a way which gives voice to previously powerless stakeholders – the beneficiaries – then the process isn’t entirely pointless.

Fourth, maybe there’s money here. Maybe funders and financiers and customers and contractors may also be fooled by these nonsensical numbers. If this brings money in, then this is just as useful to charities and social enterprises as a rebrand, a snazzy website or a shiny annual report.

So where does that leave us? Why was this train of thought slightly less boring for my audience than my usual barrage of wonk?

I think the message here is to be proportionate, to be humble, to even be sceptical. But nevertheless, to keep on trying. Trying to understand your impact is a laudable ambition at least. Often metrics might be too complex, too uncertain, too contingent, of limited or even dangerous practical application. They might be expensive. Sometimes, we might better focus on means, values and behaviours, ownership, co-operation, openness and respect. Sometimes we might just throw the spreadsheets in the bin.

But like emojis (in a text message, not on a gravestone) these metrics may yet have a time and a place. Who really knows for sure? People seemed to like my message that certainty is overrated. Uncertainty, complexity, modesty and admitting fallibility seem all together more human and more popular. Maybe that is exciting and inspiring.