February 14, 2012

What “The Wire” Has to Teach Us about Nonprofit Performance Measurement

HBO's "The Wire" has a lot to tell us about how and why nonprofit performance measurement so often—and paradoxically—makes social problems worse instead of helping us solve them.

By: Matthew Forti

This week, Matt Forti is pleased to welcome as a guest blogger Daniel Stid, a partner at the Bridgespan Group who co-leads our Performance Measurement practice. In this post, Daniel describes what HBO’s The Wire can teach us about how and why performance measurement so often—and paradoxically—makes social problems worse.

Over five compelling seasons, HBO’s The Wire depicted the seemingly intractable problems of the drug trade and the faltering institutions of urban America: the police, courts, labor unions, schools, and newspapers. The setting is Baltimore, but it could be any one of a number of cities across the country. I recently began watching the series via Netflix and couldn’t stop until I had finished all 60 episodes. Partway through this quest, I realized The Wire has a lot to tell us about how and why performance measurement so often—and paradoxically—makes social problems worse instead of helping us solve them.

The Wire’s panoramic view of data-driven disaster begins with police “juking” crime statistics to take credit and avoid blame in ways that actively subvert justice. Politicians, even self-styled reformers, manipulate the same data in order to appear tough on crime in the eyes of voters. Educators “drill and kill” their students with rote exercises to boost scores on the state’s standardized tests. Journalists fabricate stories and editors sign off on them to bolster circulation and secure Pulitzers.

The Wire’s vantage point may be a cynical one, but it is not divorced from reality. Series creator David Simon spent years reporting the police beat for The Baltimore Sun. His partner, Ed Burns, served as a detective in Baltimore’s police department before going on to teach in the city’s public schools. In The Wire they bear witness to what they observed. As Simon told Bill Moyers, “you show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is.”

Simon puts his finger on something that many of us have observed in government and nonprofits. When performance measurement is about external accountability, priorities quickly get distorted and means (i.e., measures) become ends in themselves. This is especially common when institutions and their leaders rely on performance measures to justify their actions, defend their prerogatives, or secure funding and favor from the external constituencies to which they answer, but that are not close enough to grasp how the institution is really doing.

However, another story line from The Wire gives us a glimpse of how powerful performance measurement can be when it is done right—i.e., when the primary objective is improvement. A character nicknamed Bubbles is a police informant and heroin addict who plays the jester role for much of the series, commenting on the absurdities around him in his distinct patois. Then, at the end of the fourth season, after accidentally causing the death of a friend, he spirals into despair. In the final season we watch Bubbles struggle to overcome his grief and get clean with the help of a Narcotics Anonymous group and his sponsor, a recovering addict named Waylon.

As it happens, performance measurement is implicitly part and parcel of the Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous twelve-step model. There are clear inputs (going to meetings), outputs (the twelve steps themselves) and one big outcome measure: days clean and sober, accumulated one nerve-wracking, gut-wrenching day at a time. These days begin to stack up for Bubbles. In the next to last episode, in a gripping scene that nearly redeems the cynicism dripping through the rest of the series, he stands up in front of his NA group, shyly noting that his real name is Reginald, that he is a drug addict, and that he is celebrating his anniversary of sobriety.

The institutional context in which Bubbles and his fellow NA members are each reporting, reflecting on and learning from these measures couldn’t be more different from that which contributes to the corruption of other institutions in The Wire. Bubbles and his peers are all admitted addicts. Failure is the norm, success is precarious; there is no pretense of having everything in order. The measure of sobriety is immediately relevant for the people reporting it. There is accountability—sponsors call bulls**t when they see it—but at the same time it is mutual, supportive, and constructive.

One more day of sobriety is only an indicator—a sturdy but limited one—of progress on the lifelong road of recovery; traveling down this road always remains the real point. When individuals and their institutions track progress on such indicators with a spirit of humility and willingness to reflect and learn, to change course or stay the course as necessary, they can do better. Like Bubbles, individuals and institutions should measure their performance first and foremost to improve—learning and getting better one day at a time.

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