Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Looking to Aristotle for a guide on reform

How things have changed. When I was growing up Labor portrayed itself as the party of reform, out to fix an unjust world. The Liberals were conservatives, satisfied with the world as it was and trying to keep change to a minimum. Needless to say, the Libs kept winning.

These days, however, both sides portray themselves as parties of reform. And the faster the world changes the more certain both sides become of the need for further reform - even if, as with Work Choices, the new lot's reform is merely to reverse the reforms of the previous lot.

There is one small problem with all this reform: it's not always clear the changes actually make things better. The pollies see things that aren't working well, make changes intended to improve the situation, but often don't succeed. Then they, or their successors, do more in the same vein or try the opposite approach, with neither seeming to work.

When politicians see institutions they think aren't performing - the health system, the education system, the courts, the banks - they tend to apply one of two tools. The first is to toughen up the rules and regulations governing the institution; be more explicit about what people are required to do.

The second is to sharpen the incentives (and disincentives) faced by people in the institutions. With private-sector institutions - banking, for example - the approach is usually to reduce government regulation and then rely on competition and the profit motive to improve performance.
With public-sector institutions - health and education, say - the approach is to impose numerical tests and targets (''key performance indicators'') and maybe introduce monetary rewards for good performance.

As the international experience with banking indicates, the reformers sometimes alternate between the two approaches when they find the other hasn't worked. After the Great Depression we tightly regulated the banks, but in the 1980s we decided they weren't performing well and the answer was to deregulate them. Now, after the global financial crisis, the world has swung back to thinking tighter regulation is the key to better performance.

A long memory, however, suggests it won't be that simple. Why is it that neither rules nor incentives seem to do the trick? And what else can we do that stands a better chance of working? Well, while I was away on holiday in Italy I read a book that offers some answers. It's Practical Wisdom, by Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and Kenneth Sharpe, a professor of political science at the same college.

It's noteworthy that both approaches proceed from a low opinion of the people working in these institutions: they don't really care about their work. The notion that tightening up the rules will improve the performance of practitioners assumes they are dumb (they don't know the right thing to do) and uncommitted to doing their job well. The notion that introducing numerical targets and monetary incentives will improve performance assumes practitioners are lazy and motivated only by self-interest. Both approaches are top-down: the politicians know what should be done to improve the performance of the courts or whatever, and seek to impose their judgment on the practitioners.

That gives us a clue as to why neither approach is particularly effective. Both are demoralising - in both senses of the word. They reduce the practitioners' scope to exercise their discretion when objectives conflict (as they often do in this increasingly complex world) and the circumstances of individual cases differ.

This demotivates professionals as well as removing the moral element from their jobs. They become responsible for obeying rules or meeting targets, not ensuring the ultimate objectives are achieved.

Modern jobs are multi-faceted, with multiple objectives. Numerical targets and monetary incentive payments inevitably narrow practitioners' objectives and increase their focus on monetary rewards, driving out other motivations.

And when you eliminate the moral element you encourage people to try to beat the system. The more rules you make, the more you encourage demoralised workers to look for loopholes. The more you measure people's performance with numerical indicators, the more you encourage them to game the system. Whatever elements of their performance aren't covered by a performance indicator will be cannibalised to help achieve those you are measuring.

Under both approaches quantity improves at the expense of quality, partly because quantity is easy to measure and quality is hard.

So what's the answer? Schwartz and Sharpe say that, though we will always need rules and rewards in the running of institutions, increasing the emphasis on rules and incentives discourages and diminishes the third, more elusive element needed to make institutions work well: what Aristotle called phronesis and translates as practical wisdom.

People exercising practical wisdom use their skills and experience to achieve to the best of their ability the ''telos'' or true purpose of their activity. Practical wisdom involves finding the right way to do the right thing in the particular case you are dealing with.
People are motivated to exercise practical wisdom not to obey rules or increase their income but because they know it's the right thing to do, to benefit their students, patients, clients or customers and obtain personal satisfaction in the process. It's about intrinsic motivation - doing a good job for its own sake - rather than the extrinsic motivation of obeying rules or making more money.

Institutions would work better if, rather than discouraging practical wisdom by tighter rules and bigger incentives, they gave practitioners more flexibility to innovate, improvise and generally exercise their own judgment in doing the right thing by the individuals they help. Reformers haven't got far by assuming doctors, teachers, judges, public servants and the rest are dumb and lazy and must be compelled or bribed to do better. Why not assume the majority of these professionals want to do a good job and give them more scope to do the right thing in the right way?