The Tyranny of Metrics

Reviewed by Michael Alberg-Seberich, Wider Sense, Germany

How many letters does the word philanthropy have? Twelve, exactly. How many vowels and consonants? Three and nine. What does that say about the actual impact of philanthropy? Nothing, but we have counted something and applied some metrics to the field. Yes, this is an exaggerated example, but it demonstrates quite well the use of ‘excessive measurement and inappropriate measurement’ which happens if metrics go wrong. In his book The Tyranny of Metrics the historian Jerry Z. Muller calls this phenomena ‘metrics fixation’.

Muller, driven by his own often frustrating experience with metrics as an academic and dean, explores in this book the rise of metrics and how the belief in measurement has started to ridicule the striving for evidence and impact. In this short, very concise book, Muller’s exploration of the history of ideas behind metrics is to the point. Tracing back measurement to Taylorism and other forms of managerialism may not be a surprise but it reminds us one more time of which ground we walk on when we demand more (impact) measurement in philanthropy.

Muller shows in case studies from ‘Colleges and Universities’, ‘Schools’, ‘Medicine’, ‘Policing’, ‘The Military’, ‘Business and Finance’ and ‘Philanthropy and Foreign Aid’, how metrics can become a means in itself, how the data collected often cannot be used to improve things and how people react towards metrics. Get ready for phrases like ‘gaming the metrics’, ‘creaming’, ‘lowering standards’, ‘omission or distortion of data’ and outright ‘cheating’. Since most of the case studies touch on issues that are relevant to foundations, donors and charities, it is excusable that the chapter on ‘Philanthropy and Foreign Aid’ is way too short and is also lacking concrete examples. I guess many readers could help Muller with the identification of such examples.

Muller does not question the importance of metrics overall. He ends his book with a checklist, when measurement makes sense in practice. Nevertheless, for the world of philanthropy this book is of importance. Did the sector go too far with monitoring and evaluation requirements towards grantees in their very own institutions? It seems we need a different, more open, and more courageous discussion especially on impact measurement. Metrics will not be the only way to describe change. Muller refers to the intense discussion on more participatory grantmaking when he writes: ‘In the case of charities, it may be most useful to allow the beneficiaries to judge the results.’

Muller also makes a case for judgement as a professional quality. A doctor, an academic, a teacher or a social worker may sometimes just know, based on experience, what is right. This may make some people nervous in the philanthropy sector but perhaps we need to develop not only our own professionalism but trust a lot more in the professionalism of the people that philanthropy wants to support in their work. Muller says: ‘As we’ve seen time and again, measurement is not an alternative to judgement: measurement demands judgement: judgement about whether to measure, what to measure…”.

Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics comes at the right time. It enriches the discussion about the meaning of measurement in the sector. Counting will be different for every practitioner after reading this book.

About the book
Published by: Princeton University Press
Price: £20.00 (Hardback)
ISBN: 9780691174952
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