What gets measured, gets done: politics and the alternative vote

It’s fairly well established in organisations that what gets measured, and rewarded, gets done. If you reward people for individual performance then individual results go up (at least for some), and team work goes down. If you reward collective performance team work goes up, and some individual results decrease. Organisations that I have worked with have spent considerable time and money developing performance and reward schemes to try and get all that they want, and no-one has found a perfect system.

There will always be unintended consequences to these systems. Take the software company that started paying bonuses for finding and fixing bugs in software: a whole underground economy in bugs emerged. A reward system in a client I worked with, that was designed to give financial rewards for acting in line with the company values, as rated by peers, produced a political spate of in-fighting that the organisation is still recovering from.

There is no perfect system, despite the time spent trying to find one. Each will have downsides and unintended consequences, and most organisations end up changing their system after a period of time to mitigate against the downsides of that particular system, and gain the upsides of a new one. If the organisation has an individual reward system and team work has suffered, a new system to rebalance behaviour can encourage team work (and vice-versa). There will be a period of rebalancing when the effect of the focus on team work will be beneficial, before the negative impacts and unintended consequences are seen.

Today, in the UK, votes are being counted in a referendum on changing the voting system. The UK has a first past the post system, where in each constituency the candidate with the highest number of votes is elected. The referendum is on changing this system to an Alternative Vote system, where the electorate cast second and third preference votes. The current system works well in a two party system, but in a multi-party system results in candidates being elected despite having not been supported by the majority of their constituency.

The arguments for and against each system have been argued back and forth during this campaign, and I don’t propose to rehearse these (if you do want to read them, then I recommend Nic Marks’ blog post). Instead, I am interested in looking at what role the voting system plays in performance and reward of behaviour.

You see, the voting system is the defacto performance and reward system for politicians, and just like performance and reward systems in organisations, you’ll get what you measure here too, and there will be unintended consequences.
The current system has been around a long time, and like our software engineers and their underground economy of bugs, politicians and their advisors know well how to play this system. In many constituencies the seats are safe under the current system, so the undecided voters in swing seats (those liable to change hands) have enormous power. As a result each political party focus groups these voters intensively and each comes out with a different spin on a similar set of policies designed to attract those voters – they decide the election.

This is not bad or wrong – it’s common sense. If you focus your effort everywhere you’ll be less successful than someone who targets these key voters. However the unintended consequence is a set of politicians who sound alike, resulting in voter apathy, “cause they’re all the same really,” and a political system that offers no real choice. It may not be behaviour we really want from our politicians.
The AV system is not perfect either. It’s a long way from a truly proportional system (which also has its problems), and I am sure that politicians and their advisors would find a way to play that system. The point is not that it’s perfect or not, the point is, have we reached the point where the downside of the current system is big enough that we need to change to mitigate those effects? I suspect we have.

Politicians are all very keen for bankers bonus and reward systems to be reformed, and rightly so. Those bonus and reward systems created massive economic growth, but had the downside which produced the banking crisis and recession. Those systems probably needed to be changed quite a while ago, but we needed a crisis for the will to be there for this change (even with that will the change may not occur).

Will it take a political crisis for us to see a change in the political reward and performance system? With the MPs expenses scandal in the background we have reached a point where this is being debated and there is a referendum (although a change looks unlikely according to polls). The first past the post system is, for me, an equivalent to the banker’s bonuses – useful at a time, but now we are living the downside and unintended consequences of that system and it will need to be changed in order to mitigate its negative impact.

If the voting system does change, there will be some long term negative impacts and unintended consequences to the new system (although, after a reasonable period in which it is helpful in rebalancing political behaviour and produces positive impacts). However that is not a reason to stay with first past the post, it is just a reason to acknowledge, like we do in organisations, that periodically the performance and reward systems need to change, as there is no perfect system. This ensures that we get the best of each system for a period of time, without too many of the downsides.

Tony Benn once said that five questions should be asked of anyone in power:

  1. “What power have you got?
  2. Where did you get it from?
  3. In whose interests do you use it?
  4. To whom are you accountable?
  5. How do we get rid of you?”

I would add a sixth question to this list: How can we change the performance and reward system, so that you don’t play the system, and we get the behaviour we want and need from you?


10:00 am | by Pete_Hamill

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