Friday, December 3, 2010

Shaming to improve outcomes?

The Economist has an article which suggests that "shame might be as important a tool as choice in improving public services".

The new British government is also considering this strategy to improve the quality of public services. As a first step, they are placing all information relating to performance outcomes in education, health care etc, on the department websites. It is hoped that this would expose the poor performing officials, generate peer-pressure, and shame them into improving their performance. Alternatively, it would also appeal to the public servants’ professional pride and motivate them. However, this approach has a few problems and should be used with caution.

1. The extent of its impact would vary based on individual national cultures. Therefore, for example, in communitarian countries like Japan, shaming and other forms of peer-pressure would be extremely effective. Its impact could be less powerful in more individual-centric countries.

2. The impact could also vary based on the prevailing performance levels. If the median performance-level is poor, then peer-effects are not likely to generate much impact. However, in societies where the performance-level is reasonably high, shaming has the potential to spur the poor-performers.

3. The presentation of the data assumes great significance. The message could get lost in the massive amounts of information made available in numerous rows and columns. Attractive and cognitively striking data representation techniques like visualizing graphics can be extremely powerful in conveying the message. For example, comparative graphics that highlight the performance of a subject-teacher in relation to those of his/her peer group (same subject teachers in neighbourhood schools) has a powerful motivational impact.

4. It is important that, atleast in the initial few months and years, this data should not be used for high-stakes decisions. Therefore, using such data representation techniques to shame teachers by directly comparing their performance with those of same subject teachers in the same tehsil/county may backfire. As stakes go up and the severity of public humiliation goes up, officials respond by gaming the data collection process. It is only a matter of time before the process gets discredited.


KP said...

Dear Gulzar,

I think there is a problem of biblical proportions here..."casting the first stone..."..

...we have internalised corruption as the "cost of doing business" ..

The mainstream press rather cater to prurience ... which is their idea of getting to the bottom of things..but, never gets beyond that to the compromises that were made ( in policy terms - losses / bribe / subverting national interest ) ...

prosecution????...a rarely used term..all that is required is pocket your rich pickings...and quietly exit...

recently ? the judiciary figured...sub-registrars are corrupt...there are exceptional honest ones...behind whom the entire bunch can collectively stand and whine self-righteously ...the media drums up both sides of the argument fairly well..depending on where their sympathies lie at that point...and squeezing the entire story for its visibility/mileage..

RTO's are almost entirely corrupt...using the word "almost" is a stupid nicety that we endure ... we are still researching to prove that corruption exists and is significant (Harvard case studies etc.,) ... we could shut the entire RTO system bureaucrats in the RTO their salaries for the rest of their lives and still turn out a significant surplus...

There is also a significant body of intellect that argues along the lines of - "corruption in 'xyz' is only a reflection of our society", which is the seasoned and intellectual response of a whole lot of nincompoops, and their denouement of every story involving a corruption chase...

In policy terms - the problem is gargantuan and the response incremental and easily swamped -

And then, there are a good number of "elite" thinkers who quickly use the corruption angle to justify their opposition to any affirmative action that the government undertakes...there is a not so subtle assumption to treat corruption as a class linked phenomenon..and the intellectual angle is the use of the phrase "identity contestation" as being opposed to "merit"...

subtext.."flamboyant corruption of people like us is preferable to the not so flamboyant...

And the worst of all ... expecting the individual to take on the system..with no support from the state or civil society...

governments as regulatory ... private sector solutions wherever they are feasible ... and forcing openness in government is the only slow...but sure solution.

shame? thats not a possibility .. prosecute and make an example off...thats policy.

Attacking corruption at the lower levels almost forgotten in the fascination to nail big easier and simplistic exercise that nails all problems to an individual.

Something about not to allow both sides of an argument to blather on..but to arrive at the truth...not equivocation...and tit-for-tat blithe responses from spokesmen/women.

This was an off the cuff response...not intended to substitute a policy based approach.


KP said...

Dear Gulzar,

I think naming and shaming works when we try to make an example of the unacceptable. It works when used sparingly and is effective.

But a process where data is used to motivate, is based on the system being positively motivated to correct itself. Otherwise, the participants can game the system or drag down the performance of the system to a tolerantly low performance equilibrium.

Again, this works when you are attempting to incrementally improve a system ( introducing data visibility in the process).

Prosecting/ Naming /shaming is the shock a system requires to exhibit (make an example of) the prohibitively high cost of displaying characteristics considered unacceptable - ex corruption / avoidable delays / malpractice / oversight of a serious nature.


H A K Bhaskar rao said...

is shaming make performance of org. high? Don't think so. Ofcourse websites showing high resolution of activities. I this word may unsuitable for heading. However good concept

PrideOfMatchingham said...

Great idea and hence pros and cons are bound to be there.

And KP, it was great reading your first comment which was straight from heart and hence more insightful whereas subsequent one was laboured. biblical simili had great immediate impact.

But guys, must remember that perceptions are different and it is the perceptions which we are banking upon.

Once upon a time, there was Sita who 'was abandoned' by Rama because of social (peer) pressure. That was in India. But there also was Pompeia in Hispania.Pompeia was the second wife (his first wife Cornelia having died the previous year) of Caesar who had married her in 67 BC after he had served as Quastor in Hispania. Quaestores were elected officials of the RomanRepublic who supervised the treasury and financial affairs of the state, its armies and its officers. In 63 BC Caesar was elected to the position of pontifex maximus, the chief priest of the Roman state religion, which came with an official residence on the Via sacra. In 62 BC Pompeia hosted the festival of the Bona Dea ("good goddess") in this house in which no man was permitted to attend. However a young patrician named Publius Clodius Pulcher disguised himself as a woman and gained entry into that all women festival apparently for the purpose of seducing Pompeia. But Caesar's mother discovered him when he failed to disguise his voice. He was caught and prosecuted for sacrilege. Caesar gave no evidence against Clodius at his trial and he was acquitted. Nevertheless, Caesar divorced Pompeia, saying that "my wife ought not even to be under suspicion."

We call it Sita's abandonment and consider rama's conduct amiss at the same time making a virtue of Caesar's conduct by coining the phrase 'Caesar's wife'.

Thus shame may have altogether different implications!

Urbanomics said...

thanks for all the comments. KP that was an excellent analysis of corruption. and as u said, the challenge is to design systems that address cutting-edge corruption in basic service delivery. i have briefly tried to address this here

i was not referring to use of shaming (yes, Bhaskar, it is not appropriate) as a direct strategy/policy. the objective is to deploy policy instruments which leverage this (shame) impluse/emotion. and transparency (by itself, disclosure of heaploads of information won't suffice) through use of striking data representation techniques (different audiences, different representation techniques) can be very effective.

and POM, that is precisely the cultural problem i was referring to.

gaddeswarup said...

There is an interesting paper "Why be honest if honsty does not pay" by Bhide and Stevenson which may be relevant
The formal version appeared a little later as "Trust, Uncertainty, and Profit," Journal of Socio-Economics, V 21, N 3: pp. 191-208, Fall 1992

sai prasad said...

Shaming is a very dangerous area to get into. The reactions that we are likely to get from this process are almost certainly going to far more dangerous than the damage caused by the original failure/fault.

In India, I dont even want to think about the dangers involved.

I am sure you recall what N.Vittal tried to do when he was CVC. Trial by press, punishing without trial...

What is being sought is punishment without due process and without the principles of natural justice being followed to the fullest.

And what is the limit upto which we desire to push shaming.