A measurement revolution for the feudal barons of the charity world?


Genevieve Maitland Hudson


In an article published in the Spectator yesterday, Miles Goslett writes about Kids Company and an odd sequence of events surrounding a donation to the charity. In a Spectator blog post and linked article I offer an analysis of Kids Company based on published evidence of its effectiveness. I’m not the first person, nor will I be the last, to point out that the quality of evidence for the effectiveness of many charitable ventures is not good.

In this post, though, I want to look at something a little different, not evidence, but the dynamics at work between the actors on this particular stage: the commissioners, the charities and the beneficiaries, and how those dynamics have a bearing on measurement. This is going to be a costume drama, so if you don’t care for ruffs and codpieces consider yourself forewarned. If you do, then settle down with a sturgeon steak and a handful of periwinkles; you’re in for a treat.

Standardized measurement has a long and interesting history. Some of that history is French, and feudal. Early modern France had a whole lot of different ways of measuring. There was, for instance, the ‘journal’, a measure of land not in terms of size but in days needed to cultivate it. The number of journals in fields of the same size could vary significantly. You might need twice as many journals for a steep ten acre field filled with stones as for a flat field in a rich valley. The journal could be further qualified by the kind of cultivation it needed (scything or digging, for instance).

Then you get on to measures of grain. These too varied from place to place, and from basket to basket. A last example: there were at least 17 different measures for lengths of cloth across France, but they all went by the same name, the ‘aune’. Measures were local, and expressed local differences of climate, farming and politics.

All of these different measures were an enormous problem for France’s absolute monarchs. They got in the way of efficient taxation. They were, though, quite useful for the feudal barons. Our modern conception of individually paid tax couldn’t apply in an early modern state that couldn’t count its own population and, in the absence of standard measures, had no means for assessing that population’s ability to pay. Instead of individual levies, tax was paid on a community basis with local notables serving as middlemen for the central authorities. That had the effect of encouraging local authorities to systematically misrepresent their situation, thereby reducing the local tax burden.

You have then, in early modern France, a complicated system of incommensurable measures and a cluster of powerful local gatekeepers with an interest in misrepresenting local conditions. You could argue that this is no bad thing when the central authorities are taxing largely for the monarch’s personal expenditure and war. In that context obfuscation is a form of protection. But come the revolution and the notion of equal citizenship, comparability starts to look important for social justice. Indeed it was presented that way: ‘The centuries old dream of the masses of only one just measure has come true! The revolution has given the people the metre.’

This might look like a familiar picture. Slip the actors out of their breeches and panniers and into skinny jeans and you have a situation not unlike the world of 21st century charity. Charities evaluate their work based on incommensurable local measures and have a vested interest in misrepresenting their situation, not to reduce a fiscal burden but to attract and retain funding.

There is another equally important dynamic at work. A system like this distributes power across the social structure. Incommensurable local measures need local knowledge to interpret them. Feudal barons control their land and tenants by acting as a mediating interpretive power, just as charities cement their role as intermediary organizations in representing their beneficiary groups by making sense of their needs. In this kind of system central authorities are not in a position to understand, and their force is the less because of it.

The first revolutionary decree on weights and measures was in 1790, but it took 100 years for the metric system to effectively replace the myriad local measurement systems in France. Standardizing measurement and introducing better ways of evaluating the effectiveness of interventions for the young, the old and the vulnerable is also likely to be a drawn-out process, and for some of the same reasons.

Standardized measurement is a radical thing. It democratizes knowledge and destabilizes existing power structures by introducing a more direct connection between the bottom and the top of society.  It doesn’t in itself guarantee fairness but it can make it easier to spot unfairness. All the same, one of the biggest challenges in standardizing measurement of social programmes may well be persuading the feudal barons, the charities operating as middle men between service users and commissioners, that measurement offers a better way of supporting beneficiary groups than protective obfuscation.

Genevieve Maitland Hudson is a researcher and consultant. She works with the consultancy Osca.

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