Anti-audit: A rant

As a rule I’m placid and tolerant, but some things make me very angry. And while of no fixed abode politically nowadays, I still have a few convictions left. One is a deep hatred of the proliferation in recent years of bureaucracies like the laughably named Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which purport to ensure “standards” in universities. Then there is the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), which similarly claims to rank the quality of research. This is in universities, but most if not all professions now have equivalent crosses to bear: Ofsted in schools being an especially baleful example.

On all this, I am an unabashed extremist. The whole damned lot should be abolished. Quality? Bah, humbug. These busybodies have wrecked our universities, and made everyone’s quality of life much worse, not better. The millions of hours – and pounds: what a waste of money! – spent jumping through their endless and ever-changing hoops distracts and detracts from actually doing the job of teaching and research which they’re meant to be measuring. Academics used to love their work; they still give of their best. But I know none who thinks they do, or have, a better job now than 10 or 20 years ago.

No one would deny the principle of accountability, especially of taxpayers’ money. But this is no way to do it. Two simple facts: 1. This is all very new; for centuries, British universities somehow managed to be world-class before this nonsense was dreamed up; and 2. Most other countries, wiser than us, still get on fine – indeed have better public services than the UK, which isn’t hard – without these mad rigmaroles. Who needs it?

I voted with my feet, and got out. So have many others – not a few after breakdowns. (Do the number-crunchers ever count the human cost of all this?) Those who remain struggle on sullenly, like free peasants enserfed. Maybe colonialism is a better image. Like all imperialists, our new masters brag of the mess and chaos before they took over – they lie: its name was freedom – and of how much neater and tidier everything is now. Some of us have gone over to them – out of resignation, conviction, or opportunism – and now spout the ugly, trite, mendacious jargon of delivery, roll-out, and (the nerve) empowerment as if they really believed it. Alarmingly, I fear some actually do.

It baffles me that we don’t resist all this tosh more, in theory or practice. Intellectually, a major research project awaits – would it ever get funded? – to probe exactly what has happened here, how, and why. Valuable contributions already include Michael Power (URL: no longer valid) on the audit explosion and David Boyle on the tyranny of numbers. But there’s more to it. Work, for example, has utterly changed. What with insecurity and the stupid hours cult, plus unending audit, it’s now nearly as grim a slog for professionals (in both public and private sectors) as it always was for proletarians. How did we ever let that happen? Other factors include political and managerial centralization; the decline of social trust, and of esprit de corps; the triumph of form over content; and the chimerical quest, by mechanistic minds, for the Perfect Procedure to cover all eventualities. Dream on.

Bollox to all that. A good society runs on liberty and trust, not surveillance and audit. The purpose of life is to be; which requires us to do. Accounting is a marginal, third-order activity. That it has become centre-stage is tail wagging dog. One day, please God, we’ll get it right way round again. Till then, I’ll continue to loose off squibs like this. Another weapon is satire. So: Rankers away! Stand up for humanism! Resist!

1. Audit:

Professor Michael Power

P.D. Leake Professor of Accounting, Director, Centre for the Analysis of Risk and Regulation

Research interests

The role of internal and external auditing in the corporate governance process; internal control systems and corporate risk management and regulation; risk reporting and communication.

Recent publications

1997, Expertise and the Construction of Relevance: Accountants and Environmental Audit, Accounting, Organizations and Society, Vol. 22, No. 2, pp 123-146

1997, The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, Oxford University Press, pp xix + 183

1996, Making Things Auditable, Accounting, Organizations and Society, Vol. 21, No’s 2/3, pp 289-315 with R. Laughlin, 1996, Habermas, Law and Accounting, Accounting, Organizations and Society, Vol. 21, No. 5, pp 441-465

2. Tyranny of numbers

David Boyle had a fine article in the New Statesman recently – “The storming of the accountants, Jan 21, 2002 – but the NS now charges for archive access. It begins thus:

“It may work fine in practice,” goes a joke that the French make at their own expense. “The trouble is, it just doesn’t work in theory.” So it is strange that Paris has become the birthplace of a revolt against the pre-eminence of theory over practice, of economic abstraction over reality, and statistics over real life.

Otherwise, just to show I’m not wholly one-sided, here’s a critical (but appreciative) review of David’s book from Management Today (which doesn’t charge).

Management Today, February 2002

The Tyranny of Numbers

by David Boyle

HarperCollins, £14.99

If it comes to the crunch…

This campaign against obsessive counting and measuring enchants and exasperates Robert Worcester, who does both for a living.

I disagreed with David Boyle’s premise, deplored his conclusions, and enjoyed The Tyranny of Numbers immensely. Of two minds, his diatribe against numbers and people like me who revel in them was summed up in his 227-page book as: ‘We could try measuring more and we could try measuring less. In fact, we can probably do both’.

Boyle’s thesis is that too many people spend too much time collecting too much data and not parsing it into information and thence into knowledge and thus deriving wisdom. He’s right, but then it could be argued that too many people spend too much time painting or writing and to too little effect, because they are not good enough at what they do. Life’s like that.

Boyle has really written two books in one. In alternate chapters he strikes out at examples of foolish number-crunching (eg, ‘Number of floppy discs BT believes can store a digital version of every experience in a 80-year life: 7,142,857,142,860,000.’ Surely they can be more precise! It’s like the Lewis Carroll story of the boy who comes up with a figure of 1,004 pigs in a field. ‘You can’t be sure about the four,’ he is told. ‘And you’re as wrong as ever,’ says the boy, ‘it’s just the four I can be sure about, ’cause they’re here, grubbing under the window. It’s the thousand I isn’t pruffickly sure about.’

The high points for me come in the alternate chapters of brief, ironic histories of the great number-crunchers of history: Jeremy Bentham (attempting to measure ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ and failing, after distributing a questionnaire of some 3,000 questions and having only a handful returned); John Stuart Mill (‘hard to warm to Mill, or any of the unemotional Utilitarians’); James Anyon (‘giving advice to young people – in the 19th century at the dawn of the accounting profession – the well trained and experienced accountant of today… is not a man of figures. He is rather a man of facts and truths, and figures become subordinate and are used only as a means of expressing such facts and truths’); Thomas Potter (father of the first British census, not counting the Doomsday Book!); the wonderful monomaniac Edwin Chadwick (fixated on cleanliness of both the body and the body politic); Charles Booth (mapping what he called the ‘terra incognita’ of London); Shaw and the Webbs (‘the obsession with facts led to the foundation of the London School of Economics in 1895’); and Thomas Stewart and Lloyd George, and Seebohm Rowntree, and a wonderful chapter on John Maynard Keynes, and many others.

How he missed out Churchill setting up the Central Statistical Office I can’t imagine.

Boyle’s attacks catch me on all fronts: he berates McKinsey & Co (‘What’s really important can’t be measured, perhaps we should call that the “McKinsey Fallacy”‘), the LSE (he says happiness can’t be measured – I do it all the time), and my trade (although, to be fair, it’s the ‘hard’ data that seems to dismay him most: ‘We are increasingly silenced by the number- crunchers – unable to make up our minds or take control of the future in the increasing cacophony of measurements and statistics’; and: ‘The hopeless dream of number-crunchers is still to reach the perfect objective non-political decision, to take all that human prejudice and error out of politics or management. It is a dream from the foundation of the London Statistical Society whose first rule of conduct was to “exclude all opinions”‘).

Still, I think it’s a wonderful book, even if Boyle needs to get hold of himself, and to realise and recognise that numbers, like words, are the tools we use to communicate, and have no right or wrong of their own, but only how people use them.

Robert Worcester is chairman of MORI, an alumnus of McKinsey & Co, and teaches at the LSE. He recently contributed a chapter entitled ‘Measuring Happiness In 54 Countries’ to Demos’ book The Good Life.

For more missives and missiles I’ve hurled in the audit debate see Squibs