What cannot be counted, does not count.

Essays

What cannot be counted does not count!

As those of us in the UK watch the events of the last few days unfolding in the USA, the impact of Hurricane Sandy and then the renewed campaign for the Presidential Election, it feels almost unreasonable to comment. Even as I write, the States most severely affected by Sandy are counting the cost, both in terms of human lives and damage to property, infrastructure and economy. Then there will soon be another important form of counting as the results of voting begin to come in. What have either of these got to do with the UK? The latter will clearly have a direct impact upon us as who is elected will determine key aspects of not just American but global policy for the next few years. But what is not being counted or taken into account? Others have made the obvious point that the effects of Hurricane Sandy across the Caribbean hardly made the news at all over here. It was only when it reached the shores of the USA that we began to be aware of it. So some places and some lives appear to count for more than others – for the UK media at least! Then there is the unspoken dimension of the storm itself, that it just might be the sort of extreme weather event predicted by scientists in their warnings of the impact of climate change. According to the Los Angeles Times, it is notable that neither presidential candidate has even mentioned this. There will be a count of sorts as Insurance companies begin to assess what this might mean for businesses and properties vulnerable to such storms. But, beyond that, it would seem that what cannot be counted, either because it is too controversial or too intangible, does not count.

Just in case one should make the mistake of imagining that the UK is somehow immune from this type of misjudgement, I will refer to the case of a TV celebrity (now dead for 12 months), whose reputation has been torn to shreds in the last few weeks, as it has come to light that he was guilty of serious offences, and of abusing his position of power to exploit underage girls. Given that he was employed by the BBC, it is also the image of the latter that is now being damaged. How could he have been allowed to get away with this when others apparently knew of it and turned a blind eye? It is also being reported that institutions who relied on him for significant fund raising activities, did the same. What counted was the cash that came rolling in, not the relationships and individuals whose lives have been scarred by the behaviour of this famous personality. What could not be counted, nor reduced to figures on a balance sheet, did not count at the time.

Has public life always been like this, or has it got worse over recent decades? Even at a very local level I fear that I see the same trends at work. What matters are appearances, measurables, targets, league tables, the effective promotion of apparent success. I see this in the world of education. As long as schools can convince Inspection teams that they can “tick all the boxes” and be seen to be obtaining good results – the things that can be counted – then all is deemed to be well and nobody wants to look any further. What one might call “front office” activities are all that count, but whether these are reflected in the “back office” activities may be another matter. Relationships, cultures of behaviour, the real rather than the espoused values of the organisation – these are less susceptible to calculation and thus apparently do not count. But of course they do! Issues of trust, credibility, legitimacy and integrity all depend on the consistency between the public and private face of both individuals and institutions. Striving for or claiming success in purely statistical terms – although it might win elections – is only part of the story. Surely a Christian perspective on public life requires that those things which are more elusive and less open to calculation and measurement, are exactly what need to be taken into account? It is what comes from inside, or from the back office, that betray our real values, whatever the external trappings of virtue or success. For these also we will be held to account.

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