Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Measuring Failure

Instinctively -- when you encounter one -- you know that you are looking at a bloated bureaucracy; the real question, is how to prove it?

We obviously need some simple form of cost-based accounting, that gives us a decent metric on which to compare various organizations and their effectiveness. The key here is the the measure be simple and that it cannot be subverted by those trying to apply it. Clearly, it is in a bureaucracies best interest to hide its own inner ineffectiveness; that is the very essence of why the organization is defective in the first place.

To keep it simple we only need to deal with two basic observations. The first is that at the end of the day all organizations produce either products or services, nothing else. Regulatory monitoring for instance, is just a service for the public to insure that the rules are followed. Building roads is a product, while maintaining them is a service. Everything falls into one or the other category.

The second observation is that all organizations have a cash intake. Internally they can play around with hiding pools of money from previous periods to 'alter' the appearance of getting more or less money, but in an absolute way these are just various ways of applying a debt financing service to the structure. Each period they collect a fixed amount of money, which at the end of the period is entirely known.

So applying our understanding, we can easily create a product/service accounting model that fits over each and every organization. We do this by setting forth a limited number of categories for the product/services. The less, the better. The creation of new categories needs to be tightly controlled, as it is the place most likely to be subverted by those who are reporting. So there is a very limited number of these 'official' categories.

Each category was a name -- such as "road building" -- and a metric -- such as kilometers. For each category, we find out exactly how many kilometers were built for that organization, for that period.

Say for example, a provincial government created 10,000 kms of new roads over the course of a year. There is nothing difficult in gathering that number, if there were, then it would show a serious problem with the organization's internal structure that needs to be immediately fixed; if your paying people to build roads, but you don't know how many they have built, your in serious trouble.

To each category a portion of the incoming cash flow is assigned.

That may be a little more difficult, but generally you can figure it out via capital expenditures and various budgets. Again, the powers that be will try to subvert this, so the rules about subdividing up the cash into the various product/service 'buckets' needs to be formal and tightly controlled. You can't for instance shift some of the cash onto other services, if the underlying budgets don't confirm the percentages.

There are of course two main difficulties with these ideas.

The first is administrative overhead, while the second is variable pools of money. In the first problem, most organizations will attempt to shift the various portions of their overhead around to make them look more or less effective. To counter thing, the allocation of monies to various categories should not vary significantly from one period to the next. Where expenditures are absolutely provable, they cannot be shifted to other categories. Both of these rules will have to be able to track the effectiveness of changes over an extended periods.

Organization budgeting is often extremely complex. The idea here is not to get 'tricked' but that complexity. If an organization sets aside money for later, that in itself is a service. If an organization borrows money to fund a project, that too is part of a service. Then for example is we get $100, and borrow $20 the incoming cash is $120, which is spend on whatever original service we were performing and also a debt service that is costing us a rate such as 10% per year, put whatever costs were incurred to arrange the debt.

The key idea in this accounting approach is that all of the money is allocated to a limited fix set of products or services. There should be nothing left over that isn't allocated. It all has to go somewhere. The mechanisms for allocation should be simple, and they should consistent. If we get a result that one government is spending $200 per km to pave roads and another is spending $400 dollars, the inference that the second organization is twice as inefficient should be correct; there might be differences in 'conditions' or the 'environment', but the underlying relationship is truthful.

Once we have these metrics in place, finding and fixing the problems in our organizations will be easier. Bureaucracies will no longer have the option of putting 'spin' on their results. They will no longer be able to bury their mistakes, errors or corruption. They will be open and visible. Instead of watching as these organizations steadily decline, we'll be able to assess their health and whether or not specific changes are improving or making it worse. We'll be able to compare two organizations with similar services and see which one is operating more effectively.

We will finally be able to fix the unfixable.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Anonymous Beings

Lonely in a sea of humanity? Urban dwellers encounter so many forgettable people on a daily basis that they feel entirely anonymous. It is funny to be surrounded by people, but to not notice. Faceless faces.

Within that sense, we tend to not care much about about our behavior in public. People who would never be rude to their friends or acquaintances, have no problems behaving horribly towards strangers. They feel they won't ever see them again, so why bother being polite.

The bigger the city, the better the odds of not seeing those people again. As more people congregate in larger groups, their behavior when they are alone degenerates.

It can be wonderfully horrible in a big city to observe just how low people will let their behavior slide. It is not just that sense that the other people don't matter, so you shouldn't bother to be nice to them; some people actively go out of their way just to behave poorly to others.

On crowded city streets it is noticeable, but it reaches its zenith in big repeating crowds for things like buses, or subways. Constant aggravation makes people cranky. Stir and repeat, and then they get ornery.

Sadly, their distemper, frustration and rudeness only make bad situations worse. It can spread through a crowd like a bad cough; feeding on itself as it grows. Tired cranky zombies marching back and forth between their occupations and their lives.

If you really want to see humanity at its absolute lowest point however, you need look no further than the roads and highways. If people feel anonymous in a big city, they feel invisible and anonymous in their big cars. Nothing is stupider than an impatient driver whipping around nearly a tonne of metal, plastic and glass in an uncontrolled frenzy simply because they are five minutes late for dinner. Why more people don't die in automotive accidents is a great mystery. Even just a bit of congestion and the crowds go wild. If it wasn't for the fatal consequences, streets would become totally unnavigable during rush hour. It is always such a low for humanity.

Most of us make our own problems in life. And so many of us together make our own misery. It is this strange obsession in modern life about trying to get ahead, and maximize our potential that fuels our angst. When you are too focused on the little aggravations in your life, you miss those big grand wonderful things floating around you. Trying to be a little less rude, each and every day is a great way to combat the funk that people are in, and to increase ones own karma. We all feel some need to contribute in a positive way to humanity, which we can actually do with the smallest of efforts. Making the world a better place starts with not pushing people out of the way while bordering a bus. It is not a difficult concept.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Just the Facts, Jack

What is it with people wanting to believe the craziest things? Given a bunch of presented facts, they'll pick and choose only those few which bolster their position. These, they will cling to forever, while ignoring all of the rest. We seem to decide first and then look towards reality to backup our position. Having a truly open mind seems to be rare if not impossible.

There are always trade-offs to be made within subjective frameworks depending on one's needs and opinions, but I guess because people like flexibility they want to make trade-offs in accepting concrete and unassailable pieces of information. A fact is by definition an absolutely true piece of information. The sun rises every morning, that's a fact. The clock strikes twelve twice a day, that too is a fact. An alteration of either of these would likely mean you are not on the planet earth anymore, or your somewhere so remote it is just weird. For most of humanity, most of the time, these two things are indisputable facts.

Given a few contradictory observations there can be room for some interpretation, but you can't base your world view around anomalies. If humans mostly tend to behave in a specific manner, than the 'mostly' is significant to the fact. We may not want it to be that way, but in the end we are left with only what is known to be true, and what is thought to be true. If we build our arguments and hopes only on our desires, we will likely be disappointed. You ignore the facts at your own peril.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Constant Disappointment

Small minds ensure that greed drives corporate policy. When it all comes down to money, we incorrectly value of all of those things that are really -- at the end of day -- far more important to success.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Morality Play

Whatever our origins and beliefs, we all agree that there exists idealistic concepts called good and evil. We all agree that they are distinct from each other, nothing can be both and that together they form the whole set of morality judgments. Things are either good or they are evil. Our categorizations may differ somewhat, as the concepts are deemed to be relative and can be localized, but our world has shrunk enough lately so that we all pretty much agree on nearly similar definitions.

Since these are ideas of the highest order, to be truly civilized we must come to understand them to have only universal definitions. Where they change from society to society, region to region, the cause is our own immaturity; our own lack of progress. Not the ideas.

Despite our infancy, we do know some things for certain. For instance, the cause can never justify the actions. You cannot do something evil, to justify something good. If your actions are evil, the cause becomes evil too, no matter how noble. Evil begets evil and always has, that's part of its definition.

We know that any significant power, held long enough by the same person turns toward evil. No matter how it starts, it always ends badly. They may start with the best of intentions, but it always goes down hill, and it goes down way sooner than you'd ever expect that it would. They always deny it, and they are always wrong.

Oppression of any type, for any reason is evil. Some control must be maintained, but anything beyond its minimal use quickly turns to evil. Making someone bend to your will is evil, and even more so if your reasons for doing it are selfish. Rules without real justification are evil. If you cannot prove, beyond all doubt that it is wrong or dangerous, then forbidding it is just oppression. Not saying why it is forbidden is also oppression.

Death and destruction are always bad, but they are undoubtedly evil when they get applied to innocents. And innocence is not something that you can take away because of the region of the world in which you live. It is universal, we all start with it, and it is only removed if we choose to do so actively. You were born innocent, it is your birthright. You stay that way, until you 'choose' to do something to change that.

Someone will always try to tell us what is good and what is bad. This is the most serious problem we face today. Most of us are too quick to give up our judgment to experts. That is wrong, if we have one and only one real responsibility to mankind it is to decide for ourself -- individually, all on our own -- what is good and what is evil. You cannot let others make that choice for you, no matter what organization, society, tradition or other factor they abuse to justify their claim. They have none.

As we seek to become the beings that we could be, and to build the societies that best expresses our potential, we face the challenges of our legacies. Not only evolution, but also our own histories constantly drag us back into their depths of our less noble beginnings. Even if you restrict the timetable to the last couple of millenniums, we still see our collective rise to become more complex. We are growing as a species. Don't let anyone justify a downward spiral back towards the abuses of the past just because they have twisted the interpretation of the present. You need to decide for yourself what is good and what is evil, it is the only way we can all survive. That responsibility is universal and it applies to all of mankind, no matter what we believe.