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.

 
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