12 June 2010

The articles are captured from the original writer, MsMarina (with her permission). SambalBelacan is just compiling articles to make easier to find. Any comments received will remain un-respond because it's not mine.Reach her at her very own blog at http://rantingsbymm.blogspot.com/ Please.
Wednesday June 9, 2010
Numbers can be so meaningless

Numbers give us information, but at the same time they can also mask issues. Seeing beyond the figures requires sharp analytical skills.

IN THESE days of KPIs, everyone has become “results-oriented”. But while “results” are being pulled in, we have to wonder what “results” we actually want and need.

Many of us who work in NGOs have found that the greatest frustration when we work with the Government is in the definition of “results”. For the Government, it is almost always about numbers. How many people underwent a programme, or attended a course or did this or that.

But often we find that numbers actually mean little. As an example, we are very proud of the fact that most of our people have access to schooling. We take that as proof that our citizens therefore have a high level of literacy.

But there are several problems with this simple conclusion. Firstly, is it true that every one of our citizens has access to schooling? And secondly, of the ones who do get to go to school (and manage to stay in school for 12 years), what sort of schooling are they getting? What exactly do we mean by literacy? Is it the ability to read a bus schedule or more than that?

In other words, while we may do well quantitatively, the real question is how are we doing qualitatively?

To be able to see how well anyone is doing in terms of quality requires analytical skills. This is often a capacity we find lacking among bureaucrats, and which causes not only frustration but also friction with NGOs working on many social issues.

We know that numbers are not everything, yet our counterparts in the Government are often reluctant to look beyond them.

For instance, it was no surprise to me that Zainah Anwar’s article (“Nothing divine in child marriage” – Sunday Star, June 6) picked up on a fact that bureaucrats don’t seem to have noticed, that there are a lot more child marriages, especially among girls, than we thought.

This came from a set of data meant only to register those who take HIV tests before marriage. But for those of us used to scrutinising data with a more sensitive eye, the ages of those getting married leapt out.

Similarly, when one reads newspaper reports about children being abused, what I have noticed most is how young the parents invariably are. This then begs the question: are these parents simply too young to cope with parenthood?

Which then leads to another question regarding why they married young. Was it because of an accidental pregnancy, due to lack of knowledge of the consequences of unprotected sex? Was it to legitimise sex? Once we embark on the trail of questions, we unearth a lot more information. And we need information to solve problems.

While numbers give us information, at the same time they can also mask issues. It takes a mind trained to be more curious to unearth these. And that is perhaps the problem; that among policy makers and decision makers, the training is lacking.

Training for analytical skills doesn’t have to be formal, although it helps. Sometimes it is just a matter of talking to people who have the skills. But that means accepting that there are people more knowledgeable than us, and being humble enough to ask them for it.

Recently, a very high-level civil servant bemoaned the fact that our diplomats are now too shy to socialise with people when they are on foreign posting. Thus they are unable to obtain information that would be beneficial to the country, rendering themselves useless.

I don’t think it is a problem that lies only with the Foreign Service but permeates many different ministries.

I have been on innumerable conferences abroad where I have found government delegations unwilling to use the opportunity to meet as many people as possible or sometimes to even attend sessions where they might gain new knowledge.

Occasionally, I have had to introduce high-ranking officials to their counterparts but rarely have I seen any productive interaction between them. Perhaps diplomatic niceties intrude but if one is always on the defensive, how does one have a meaningful conversation?

Indeed, two major problems beset many of our officials. One is the lack of capacity for analysing problems at any level of quality.

And second is the defensiveness manifested often by that great Malaysian particularism – “we are Malaysian, we are different”.

That shuts up all conversation. And, I might add, leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the other person.

It is not always the officers’ fault. When one is asked to always toe the line, or only promote ideologically driven policies, then why go the extra mile to find out more in case the facts negate the policies? Besides, that means more work.

But if we keep this up, be prepared to endlessly bemoan our social problems.