Another dot in the blogosphere?

Measuring what is right

Posted on: May 17, 2016

I was quite upset when I read this headline: NCSS mulls implementing productivity metric for social service sector.

The NCSS is the National Council of Social Services here in Singapore. They were a distant entity to me up until last month when I participated in a learning event organised by them.

I did not think one intervention from me would change a lifetime of established practice. However, I was hoping that I might have made a dent.

I do not think that productivity — how ever it is defined — is the right measure. In my opinion, productivity is measuring what is possible or convenient instead of what is right.

I agree with the voices of dissent (I have highlighted the key issues in bold).

International housing development non-governmental organisation (NGO) Habitat for Humanity, for instance, said it is difficult to assess the qualitative impact of its work and a one-size-fits-all metric may be unrealistic.

Mr Yong Teck Meng, the national director of Habitat for Humanity Singapore, commented: “We are not very sure about the effectiveness of such measurements, because in the NGO and charity world, things are quite intangible.

“And even if you try to measure some of the work that we do, we think that it will take many years for the actual results to come in. So if you were to give us a kind of measurement metric, I’m not very sure whether it will be customised enough to suit our needs.

I think that the agency is repeating a mistake that the schooling world has already made with an over-emphasis on examinations and grades. In the schooling arena, this is a numbers game that not only devalues and categorises people, it has also created an unhealthy culture of kiasu-ism and dependence on enrichment tuition.

There is nothing wrong with NCSS seeking accountability. But it needs to recognise that Volunteer and Welfare Organisations (VWOs) are not factories with inputs and outputs and processes in between.

The accountability cannot be just about productivity as defined by numbers or even by compelling stories. It could seek to define what is intangible, qualitative, and long term. It could avoid formulaic thinking and learn how to ask NGOs and VWOs how they measure their worth and results. Only then does it start on the journey to measure what is right.

2 Responses to "Measuring what is right"

HI Ashley, Esther from SSI here. The dent in our participants’ minds is definite, however, i guess the impact was localised to SSI. 😛
I’ve not heard much about their plans on this metric (they are still mulling i think), but i was wondering the following:
1. many times we end up measuring using metrics that are the most ‘efficient’, fuss-free and maybe that’s the best alternative at this point in time. Would it be more advantageous not to measure anything if we do have a ‘close-to-perfect’ solution?
2. as a membership body of such a fragmented and diverse sector, what can our role be in terms of improving services and organisational practice across the member organisations? you mentioned that we should find out how NPOs measure their results. Should we find out and try to standardise it? If they do not currently measure their worth or results, we work together with them to develop a way of measurement? Look forward to hear your thoughts!


My replies are going to be concise versions of longer conversations that we should have.

Efficient and easy-for-now might seem like the right measure, but is it measuring the right things? I would urge all involved to question the assumptions of “productivity”. What does it mean? What does it look like in social service? If it is to be quantified, what do you lose as a result of those measures? How do you prevent those losses?

If we were having a conversation, I could share cases and examples of how to balance the traditional and quantitive with the progressive and qualitative.

The diversity in the social service sector can seem daunting. The immediate reaction is to try to standardise. But this could mean committing the same mistakes as the schooling sector. If you keep up with what is happening in that space, you will note how it is struggling to break out of that entrenchment.

We are learning the hard way that we cannot treat everyone the same in schooling and education. Why treat the many VWOs and NGOs likewise when they have such diverse needs and services?

Again, this is the subject of a longer conversation. One way to think about this issue is to design and implement a shared approach but have stakeholder-defined outcomes, i.e., different means to the same ends. It becomes a focus on the journey (process) and destination (product), not just the latter alone.

I hope this troubles you some more. 🙂


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