Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Upstreaming Bureaucracies, Undoing the Games

Upstreaming is efforts intended to prevent problems before they happen or reduce the harm caused by those problems. Upstream is like teaching kids to swim upstream to prevent drownings. Downstreaming is reactionary, it’s easier to see and easier to measure because it’s tangible: bureaucracies love it.

when done successfully, is not tangible. It’s hard to prove what didn’t happen. Victories are stories written in data, with heroes and victims. Eventually, bureaucracies devolve into an exercise of turning into a game, or “gaming the system” for those cynical. Here are a few case studies from the book:
  • Paying $40,000 for insulin when $1,000 might prevent someone from ever getting diabetes and needing insulin
  • Police who hide in order to hand out driving tickets to meet a quota
  • Doctors who prefer C-sections because they’re scheduled, no weekend or holiday work, and especially because they get paid more per hour than waiting for natural births
These are more extreme examples, but unfair or not, we encounter these types of what may seem anomalous affairs more than we would think or want. We can probably think of a few from our own experiences.

The library world has forever been in dire straits when it comes to using statistics to prove its value or the much-dreaded ROI. There have been studies done about how numbers don’t tell the whole story and might not always be reliable, such as this one, or this one, and of course, this one. In bureaucratic systems, where data can be only too easily used as an excuse for decision-making, upstreaming can be tempting. Data-driven decisions can (in)advertently turn into an exercise of “gaming the system.”

In some ways, Dan and Chip Heath’s book is essentially an academic study of cutting corners.  But in the end, they make an indelible argument: it’s not just gaming the system, it’s also defiling your mandate.

No comments: