Friday 7 March 2008

Can you measure it?

I was watching Sky News on TV recently and, as often happens with Sky in the mornings, they switch over to CBS for an update on the American news they seem to think we can't live without. See, it's not just BTV that do this. BTV used to switch over to the BBC but now broadcast a feed from the utterly ridiculous MSNBC. Quite why BTV think we want to see a series of TV advertisements for American loans, health insurance and pet care with occasional salacious bits of news in between I don't know. It's not having second-hand news I object to, it's the impression that BTV thinks just broadcasting anything it can get cheaply is good enough. It's not.

Anyway, back to Sky and CBS. I caught the end of an item on consumer confidence in the USA. It reported the news that Americans are now suffering as a result of rising oil prices and the resulting effect on the price of almost everything else. There were stories of very unfortunate Americans who were having great trouble paying their mortgages, were often surviving on nothing but credit cards and were generally very worried. Well, obviously anyone with feelings would be sympathetic. Of course it's horrible to see people whose dreams are being destroyed but there still was that little part of me that couldn't help thinking "Welcome to the real world".

For too long the USA has been over-protected by artificially low oil prices, tariffs that protect their own industries and protection from genuinely free trade. There was another story I saw on the BBC about the outrage in the US upon hearing that Boeing had lost a huge contract to supply planes to the US military and that, horrors, a European group had beaten them. Beaten them on price and quality. Politicians were demanding that only American companies should be selected to supply their military and that foreigners shouldn't be allowed a chance. And this from the champion of free enterprise? Isn't that slightly hypocritical?

On that subject I also couldn't help but laugh when I read an incredibly pompous letter in Mmegi from the "Deputy Chief of Mission" (haven't they heard of the definite article?) from the US Embassy. He started his letter about Africom by describing the USA as "the world's longest-standing democracy for 231 years". That is true of course. Well, it is if you ignore black people and women. He then compares their history of democracy with ours which, he reminds us, is only 41 years old. I hope he realises he's on slightly tricky ground here. He should perhaps be reminded that the Voting Rights Act that ensured black Americans were to be given genuine access to their democratic rights was only forced through by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. So yes, their democracy is undoubtedly older than ours.

By one year.

Also it's a little dangerous to claim, as he did, that history has recorded how the USA stood up to the "the evils of terrorist extremism". Yes, history has recorded it rather well. Who was it that armed the Taliban with missiles during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan? Who was it that trained Osama Bin Laden?

Of course, I'm not going to criticise the genuinely magnificent work that has been done with undoubtedly generous contributions by the US Government towards the fight against HIV/AIDS. It really IS enormously welcome and I will be the first to congratulate the US Government on the work they have done and funded. But the lesson is to learn a little humility and to try very hard not to be pompous, condescending and arrogant.

I confess that part of my reaction is surprise. I genuinely thought that I was the most pompous person in the country. Seems like I may have a rival.

Back to the issue.

One of the things that CBS reported was that consumer confidence in the USA was 68.4%. Well, I think that was the number, I don't really think what the number was matters very much. I really get cross (and yes, a bit pompous) when I see gross simplifications of what are complex issues. You really can't measure something complex in simple terms. Things like my height, weight and shoe size are easy to measure. But my intelligence, assertiveness and pomposity are much more complex things. It really is impossible to boil them all down to a single number. It's the same with things like consumer confidence, customer satisfaction and quality of service. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either naïve or trying to deceive you. Each of them is multi-facetted. When you and I go to a restaurant we have dozens of little experiences between arriving in the car park and leaving a couple of hours later. Some may be fantastic, others may be awful and trying to summarise the while experience by saying the restaurant scored 62% is just silly.

When you measure something complex you really have to measure as many of the components as possible. Imagine that you took your car for service and the mechanic said afterwards that 98% of the engine was perfect so he should expect 98% of the price. After it's only the fuel pump that hasn't been repaired so generally he scored rather well. Surely you and I would become very pompous and we would tell him where to put his invoice. So why is measurement of service any different?

As Oscar Wilde said, the truth is rarely pure and never simple. If you want to measure something you need to think VERY carefully before you do so. Remember that things like the length of democracy and my level of pomposity are not as easy to measure as you might think.

This week's stars!

  • Tshwarelo Gabatsholane who works at the Directorate of Public Service Management for "going the extra mile".
  • Mothibedi from Incredible Connection in Gaborone for his usual friendliness and helpfulness.
  • Kelly at FNB in Francistown for really friendly service, apparently "she really knows her customer service".

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