OPINION: Unintended consequences

The States has set itself a series of targets to meet, but Horace Camp explains that, according to Goodhart’s Law, when targets are met this often leads to unforeseen outcomes

Life for a columnist isn’t easy these days. The Political Wing of the States of Guernsey isn’t up to much and the little it is doing is well covered before it happens by Deputy St Pier and then beautifully lampooned post event by Colonel Graham, whose bottle of green ink will soon need replenishing.

Yes, I know there is some sort of education debate going on but it sent me to sleep long ago and perhaps someone can wake me up when the bleedingly obvious solution of three 11-18 schools is finally chosen. For heaven’s sake, we have obviously successful 11-18 schools to model the rest of our secondary education upon yet we go round and round in circles.

And of course we have all the targets the States have set themselves to meet, which could be worthy of a few hundred words. Carbon zero by whatever, head count savings and many, many more. The problem about clearly defined targets is that often when they are met they don’t actually produce the result originally planned.

I would love to call this Camp’s Law, but unfortunately a Mr Goodhart has already claimed it, although his way of describing it needs a wet towel wrapped around your head to cool your overheated brain trying to make some sense of it – ‘Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes’.

Simple, eh? Let me tell you a possibly made up story to help you understand.

Imagine a country, the old USSR, suffering a major nail shortage which was holding up the 10-year plan to build hundreds of sub-par housing units for its citizens. With no building going on, there was little opportunity for the fat cat socialists to skim off the cream and so something had to be done. The obvious answer was set a target for nail production, with the benefit of meeting it or being sent to Siberia for a long vacation.

Although Siberia can be lovely in summer, managers of nail producing factories preferred to be patriots and meet their quantity targets. The only possible way to make more nails was to make the nails smaller. Brilliant, the target was met, but unfortunately the problem was not solved because although they had plenty of tiny nails, they were totally useless for most practical purposes.

Politicians aren’t fools, or so they tell themselves, so after sending the old managers up north they set the new ones weight-based targets. Again the only way given the machinery and manpower available was to concentrate solely on producing a small number of very heavy nails. Soon all targets were being met and the Soviets had stockpiles of huge, useless nails to add to the pile of useless tiny nails.

Goodhart’s Law simply explained.

Now how does this apply to Guernsey? Well, Dear Reader, it is a warning to you to never accept that setting a target will ever lead to the desired outcome. Our States has a long history of setting targets that were claimed to have been met but were in the main purely smoke and mirrors. Just cast your mind back to recall all the savings the States have told us they have made or the money spent now to generate future savings.

By now, those savings must be enormous. Think how much money we saved by shutting down the desalination plant in the last century. Add those savings to the savings made by closing down St Peter’s Primary School and we may have saved enough to transform the harbour.

You see the problem is that with the States’ savings logic, if you save it once and then spend it you have in fact met your savings target. I read about a recent example of this logic on social media being expounded by a well known former politician. This was in the context of P&R vetting new highly paid jobs being created in the civil service. The argument went sort of like this – please forgive the poetic licence, which makes my point easier to explain.

If a committee makes a saving by not replacing a high grade (expensive) public servant then that can be recorded as a saving. But the salary budget for that year is not reduced accordingly, which when spotted by the committee is then seized upon to create an entirely new high grade role without in any way reducing the saving already booked. Win, win eh? All targets met.

Obviously not in the real world, but possible using States logic.

Let’s think of another target that will probably have an unforeseen outcome, zero carbon by whenever. This will be so easy to achieve because carbon credits can be purchased. Guernsey Electricity is already proud of its green record and I expect Aurigny will lose more money by paying for trees to be planted somewhere in the Philippines to make air travel zero emission.

Call me a cynic – many have, by the way – but I take all targets with a pinch of salt and I expect all targets set by the States of Guernsey should be taken with a sack of the stuff. And they should come with disclaimers including an introduction to unforeseen outcomes and a link to the Wikipedia entry for Goodhart’s Law.

I cannot miss the opportunity afforded to me by this column to say a fond farewell to a regular – possibly the only regular – reader, Dudley Jehan, a great son of Guernsey who passed away recently. He achieved much in his long life but to me it was his time as a Boy’s Own comic type of hero when he was a polar explorer in the 1960s that encouraged me to follow him on Twitter. I never met Dudley, but his tweets of wisdom were a cut above the usual Guernsey Twitterati standard and every other Friday I would wait for a ‘Good column today, Horace’ to pop up on my timeline. It didn’t happen very often, but when it did it would make my day. Rest in peace, sir.

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