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In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Muller presents a clear case against the current, and growing, over-reliance on KPIs and other performance metrics for assessing people’s and organizations’ work. One of the more common admonitions in AI is to be careful what you ask for, or, as Russell & Norvig put it in their incredibly popular textbook on AI, “what you ask for is what you get.” If your institutions set KPIs rewarding citations, for example, then you’re likely to end up with illicit citation rings, with pals citing each other pointlessly — pointless except for the KPI reward, of course. KPIs have a very strong tendency to replace the real objectives of an organization — education, good governance, public health, common welfare — with much lower quality ersatz objectives — student popularity, volume of memoranda, quick hospital discharges, numbers of arrests for petty crimes.

Another common problem is using absolute metrics when only relativized metrics make sense. For example, insisting that education funding reward schools whose students perform better on standardized tests can make for a good sound-bite, but has always been understood to produce “teaching to the test” — that is, a narrow educational focus that leads to ex-students poorly prepared to deal with a complex world with wide-ranging problems. But importantly it also leads to schools taking a low-risk approach to their education. Instead of seeking out and supporting students with disabilities or minority socioeconomic backgrounds, they will narrow their admissions to those already likely to perform well on standardized tests. That can really pay off for their budgets, but it’s also letting society down. The major blame should fall on the politicians who force the performance metrics on the schools in the first place. Instead of an absolute test-performance standard, a relativized standard, comparing outcome performance to initial performance, would eliminate that particular distortion of educational goals. (While doing nothing about teaching to the test, of course, which requires some other response.)

Muller reviews many of the ways in which metrics can go wrong, and he specifically considers them in some of the more socially important domains in which they do go wrong: education (secondary and tertiary), policing, medicine, finance, the military, foreign aid. His book is an excellent starting point for thinking about the general subject of work performance measurement or its particular consideration in any of these domains.

I can’t give Muller five stars here, however. One area in which he goes seriously astray is the issue of transparency in our institutions. Muller quite rightly points out that in many processes we require confidentiality and that the demand for transparency may well have gone too far. In diplomacy, privacy or secrecy can be essential to achieving a reasonable outcome. Diplomacy requires compromise, and compromise requires giving away something that you’d prefer not to. If the thing given way is made public too soon, then the diplomatic transaction may well implode before any compromise can be agreed. People have secrets for good reason. Similarly, the demand for honesty in politicians (generally an unsuccessful demand to be sure, but commonly loudly made in the media nonetheless) can turn into a fetish, where politicians who legitimately change their minds are excoriated for having no position or those who bend the truth to achieve a greater good are pummelled for dishonesty. The whole point of politics is for our politicians to achieve greater goods, not lesser goods, so these kinds of admonition by Muller are well taken.

Yet Muller goes far too far in this. Wikileaks’ revelation of war crimes in Iraq was accompanied by the revelation of identities of intelligence agents around the world. Julian Assange didn’t care about the safety of those agents or the future ability of, say, the CIA to recruit other agents. That’s a failure of over-zealous transparency, for sure. But Muller gives no credit at all to the other side. For example, he fails to accept that the whistleblowing revelation of the war crimes itself was a good thing and should be legally protected. He fails to acknowledge any benefit from Freedom of Information laws. Worse still, he castigates Edward Snowden for revealing many of the secrets of the NSA. While the United States has the right to have a “no such agency”, it doesn’t have the right to have spying and anti-encryption programs of the depth and breadth of the NSA. What Snowden exposed was, and is, criminal activity endangering democracy (see, e.g., https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-45510662). I think it absurd that Muller can’t put in even one word of support for such transparency. I wish for treatments of these subjects that show better balance and judgment than Muller’s.