A Good Servant But a Poor Master: The Side Effects of Numbers and Metrics

Published date01 May 2022
Date01 May 2022
Subject MatterPerspectives
Administration & Society
2022, Vol. 54(5) 971 –991
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/00953997211043830
A Good Servant But a
Poor Master: The Side
Effects of Numbers and
Alexandre Asselineau1, Gilles Grolleau2,
and Naoufel Mzoughi3
A common practice in managerial and public service contexts is to quantity,
calculate, and use numbers and metrics which provide a presumption of
scientificity, a sense of measurability, objectivity, reliability, and precision
upon which smarter decisions can be made. Besides providing a theoretical
background, we analyze counter-productive effects of over-relying on
numbers and metrics, notably in public administration. We discuss the
following traps: preferring what is measurable over what is important,
replacing the strategy by a measure and dehumanizing the decision making.
We suggest some practical ways to facilitate a more parsimonious, smarter,
and adequate use of numbers.
numbers, measurement, metrics, dehumanization, surrogation bias
1Burgundy School of Business, Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté, Dijon, France
2CEE-M, Univ. Montpellier, CNRS, INRAE, Institut Agro, Montpellier, France
Corresponding Author:
Naoufel Mzoughi, Unité de Recherche Écodéveloppement, INRAE, CS 40509, Avignon,
84914, France.
Email: naoufel.mzoughi@inrae.fr
1043830AAS0010.1177/00953997211043830Administration & SocietyAsselineau et al.
972 Administration & Society 54(5)
Numbers, metrics and related practices are everywhere in our professional
and personal lives. Since childhood, most individuals are conditioned to mea-
sure, quantify, compare, and behave according to various numbers and met-
rics such as height, weight, price, student scores and rankings. According to
Hummel (2006), the dominance of numbers is such that nothing is considered
to be real unless it is measured. Some professions seem even number-based,
such as the accounting profession that is frequently perceived in a simplistic
fashion as revolving around numbers and number crunching, relegating its
human dimension to the background. Numbers constitute “social resources”
(Vollmer, 2007) that deeply influence the way we perceive the world around
us and play an ordering and orientating function. For instance, public com-
munications regarding the management of the COVID-19 crisis is frequently
based on and justified by numbers such as daily new cases, daily deaths,
number of patients in ventilation beds. The digital revolution also led to a
quantification of ever more areas of human life and society, especially
domains that were previously untouched by the measurement fever such as
friendship or love or environmental issues. Some neologisms such as “omni-
metrics” and “numerocracy” (i.e., governance by numbers) are used to
describe the hold of measurement and numbers in everyday life (e.g., number
of retweets, number of “friends” on Facebook, number of views or visitors on
a public service, or on a YouTube channel).
In the public administration as in the business and private world, numbers
and metrics are everywhere. (Public) management by numbers and metrics is
booming in recent years with performance-enhancing promises (Hood, 2007,
2012), leading some authors to label it as a “revolution” (James et al., 2020).
In the New Public Management, numbers serve as governance tools that are
not without negative side effects (Siltala, 2013). In the public administration
context, metrics are sometimes considered as the counterpart of prices on
markets (Muller, 2018). Hood (2007) described three types of systems of
performance measurement expressed in the form of intelligence systems
(background information on performance but without fixed data interpreta-
tion), ranking systems (comparing the performance of units against one
another) or target systems (the measured performance is compared against
one or several standards). Analysts and deciders are frequently overwhelmed
by the amount of analytic data proposed by technology companies such as
Facebook or Twitter. More and more training courses, diplomas or jobs are
oriented toward data analysis and public administration is no exception.
Number-based practices can be conducive to a lot of benefits such as com-
municating a sense of measurability, transparency, objectivity and reliability.
In the managerial world, a well-known mantra states that “What gets mea-
sured gets managed” or the variant “What gets measured gets done.

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