Action Research: Deadweight Cost and Meaningful Work

What follows is the next part of my action research project analysing the effect of metrics and bureaucracies impacting on the people involved in giving support to those who need forms of help with various aspects of living.

Dead Weight

You can read the previous section of this project ‘Action Research: Outputs, Outcomes and the Political Setting’ by clicking HERE.


The previous section gave a potted history of large changes in political economy as an overview to the sociological environment in which people and professionals are having to function in Britain today.  As an action research project it is about analysing the issues which are affecting me, the author of the study with a view to trying to effect a change with regards to those issues.


In this section of the study the preamble is going to be contextualising some aspects of the method which I am using, and picking up on the importance of meaningful work and the problem of deadweight costs.  I examine the increase of bureaucracies in terms of the errosion of meaning in various realms of life through the abstracting nature of the practice suggesting some parallels with the phenomena of ant mills.


Karl Mannheim
Karl Mannheim

A Note on Methodology and Feeling in Narratives

I am aware that many traditions of academia take pains to remove emotion and feeling from narratives, however, in this study, as an author and someone who is affected by the issues being examined I have chosen to include emotive aspects to articulate some aspects of knowledge and experience which are lost when they are stripped out.


Including the aspect of feeling is human and I see it as humanising in the methodology in a dehumanised world.  In response to the traditional view that subjection distorts the acuity with which knowledge is apprehended my view is that the subjective is imperative to engage with the realities.  All knowledge flows through the lense of our psychology and it is important to overtly acknowledge what is active in the psyche.


Taking time to recognise the sociology of knowledge is critical to overcoming certain obstacles of perception. Understand ourselves as human beings which are inherently emotionally active is a critical component to balanced knowledge production.  Karl Mannheim was a figure who developed the sociology of knowledge examining in practice how people frame, perceive and interpret ‘the world out there’.


People – be they scientists or paupers, doctors or drug users – interpret the world and knowledge, though lenses based on culture, position, interests, ideologies and other things.  These influence our notions of identity and action directly influencing the relationships which emerge between the self and society.   How people see the world is to a great extent constructed from experience and the ideas of personality which they hold that are projected onto themselves and others.


Acknowledging my sociology and psychology is a part of bringing balance to the inclinations I have which influence the way I encounter the world; as a process it challenges me to become a better thinker.  This is not about putting aside the values which I have but more about being overt about them to myself and others so that inherent bias is guarded against.


Manheim suggests that people who do not recognize their class interests suffer from a ‘false consciousness’, and thus understanding their privilege or disadvantage is an important exercise in the intellectual process which involves honesty.  If I did not acknowledge that I feel hurt, harmed and wounded from having opportunities withheld by a highly stratified society where artificial scarcity has produced an underclass of which I am a part of, I would be acting and writing through a false consciousness.


Equally, in theory, if someone who had been lucky enough to have grown up with an abundance of resources and support sufficient to go to a Russell group university and trained in a prestigious profession were not to acknowledge the attitudes and psychology which these life factors conferred, then they too would be labouring under a ‘false consciousness’.  Privilege and poverty shape how we encounter and apprehend the world, and consequently how we act and react to what we encounter.


Knowledge becomes a part of our identity and it is defended as such.  Perceived ownership of ideas can manifest as contestation in a similar way as a primate may defend territory.  This contributes to the cognitive biases of snobbery and those of reverse snobbery; each an unwillingness to value and take time to understand another perspective.


I see the viewpoints of snobbery emerging partly come from power differentials where people have become used to being listened to.  I see the viewpoints of reverse snobbery partly associated with reactions against the inequities which they have encountered with power differentials ultimately drawing categoricals from the social realities.  These comments are by no means complete in themselves and require qualification, however as provocation they are important to open up a discussion on the social landscape of Britain today.


I see progress as navigating between the moral hazard of privilege and reacting to privilege in dehumanising ways.


Bullshit Jobs

The Importance of Meaningful Activity

In 2013 David Graeber wrote an essay on what he called Bullshit jobs. As a professor of anthropology at London School of Economics he was interested to find out the thoughts of people who feel that they do a job which does not contribute anything meaningful to society.


He brought together a book from studying this phenomenon to try and account for the sociological phenomenon which he dubbed ‘bullshit jobs’ and found in relation to this that certain types of jobs had sky rocketed in numbers.


If we look at service jobs, about 20% of the workforce are involved in these and Graeber suggests this figure is pretty constant over time. The job roles which he had found astronomical grow in numbers he says were clerical, administrative and supervisory roles.  It is in these areas which he has concentrated his efforts to analyse meaningless work.


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Distinguishing the meaningful from the meaningless in life is not a new thing.  Famously William Morris wrote the essay ‘Useful Work Versus Meaningless Toil‘ in which he examines issues of bullshit jobs – that is, meaningless activity pressed upon people which adds nothing of value to the world at large.  Here is a quote from Morris in 1884:


“It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it – he is ’employed'”


A whole culture of vacant activity has filled the lives of people as “the bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy” (Oscar Wilde).  People are compelled to fill out yet another feedback form or questionnaire, squint at more questions in newly modernized metrics which are to be fed into algorithms originally designed to anticipate breeding patterns in livestock (see Amrein-Beardsley, A. (2014). Rethinking value-added models in education: Critical perspectives on tests and assessment-based accountability. New York: Routledge) to produce numbers which bear little or no resemblance to the reality they were allusively drawn from.


There are bullshit jobs, and a widespread creation of bullshit apprenticeships (see Critical apprenticeships: The Wrights and the Wrongs of Passage).  I would suggest that there is also bullshit voluntarism which has emerged from a heady mixture of top down parent-child hierarchy in charitable organisations dressed up as aspirational co-production culture and public engagement all sandwiched in economic imperatives filtering down from purse string holders.


It is heart breaking to say but there is a whole industrial-charitable complex which has emerged which serves employability in that people are using charities to polish their CV’s.


For example, in my experience, some (but not other) students sign up for doing some ‘charitable work’ in ‘the community’ because their universities have told them that it needs to be a part of their resume if they are to be regarded as more employable. When the university deadlines approach the work they have made a pseudo-commitment to in the community goes out of the window in pursuit of the demands being made by the institution.


From one aspect this is understandable if we look at the cost of higher education today and how much debt students are incurring to take part – it is a one shot deal for the majority.  However it must be held in mind that the work which is being done in communities and under the auspices of volunteering is often responding to needs required fo quality of life to those in a given community. Thus the fickle interactions of student (and employability oriented) volunteering initiatives are damaging.  These are bullshit relationships.


There are various perspectives like this which add substance to the concepts of ‘bullshit voluntarism‘ and ‘bullshit charity‘.  It is a prickly subject because we care so much for the charitable sector, but in the final analysis, what results in some circumstances is meaningless work and meaningless interactions which erode rather than enrich.


As public infrastructure and services have funding withdrawn, the charitable sector takes on more and more pressure in the climate.  Those who are meant to be the beneficiaries of the charitable sector are increasingly exposed to cultures which can promote perverse incentives.  A perverse incentive is an incentive that has an unintended consequence which has an undesirable result which alternative to the policy makers.  Professor of Finance Vikas Mehrotra explains such unintended consequences of perverse incentives through the anecdote of ‘Cobra Effect’ in the following episode of the Freakonomics podcast:



Cobra bounty

The ‘Cobra Effect’ got it’s name after an initiative set up by a British governor when the British Raj was in Delhi.  He thought there was too many venomous cobras and so offered a bounty for people who brought in cobra skins.  As a result some of the people of Delhi created cobra farms to take advantage of the rewards by bringing in cobra skins.


The administration started to get an overwhelming number of claims and eventually stopped the scheme.  At this point the cobra farmers had all the snakes they had bred on their hands.  As there was no more market for them they released the snakes into the wild; the result was an increase in number of cobras by a number of orders of magnitude.  This is what perverse incentives bring about.


The introduction of competition, payment by results and measurements of outcomes to the charitable sector has produced various unintended consequences.  The reductive political economy of competition has resulted in the instrumentalisation of people and social functions where the measurements of outcomes has imposed itself on a prior existing complex human ecology.


The perverse incentives introduced through the methods of social planning have caused instrumentalisation of charitable behaviour and the charitable sector leading it to become used as a means of meeting economic imperatives as an extension of employability.  The imposition of metrics, outcomes assessments and measurements throw up a number of problems which are well articulated by Cambell’s Law, so named after the social scientist Donald Campbell…


“Supported by qualitative sociological studies of how public statistics get created, I come to the following pessimistic laws: The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

(Donald T. Campbell, Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change, Evaluation and Program Planning, 1976, Page 49)


The costs of implimenting bureaucracies are many when they perform no intrinsically useful role as activities other than the purportedly communicating data up (or across) a chain of command.  It seems that implimenting such bureaucracies tend to create costs paid by the people on which they are imposed where ultimately the extracted value gets paid to the people who create them.  This can be contextualised with tax payers money, the time and energy of frontline workers, or with the life assets of people at the bottom of the pyramid – those for whom the system is voiced as serving.


Thus it strikes me that bullshit bureaucracies can be described as paperwork which takes up time, energy and effort in generating abstract information which purports to be describing realworld situations but which is ultimately meaningless once assimilated as they will never be read again nor have any legacy value.


I have encountered bullshit bureaucracies and bullshit databases, bullshit policies and bullshit processes driven by well intentioned people who are utterly confused when asked to look at the bigger, joined up picture which I have to negotiate.  When I have been passed through large abstract systems of administration from one person to another, one process to another, I have realised at points that nobody individually has enough knowledge or agency to deal with certain distinct problems within them.


The meaningless things which I have been mandated to do had created a meaningless life for me when I was stuck in the thralls of dysfunctional bureaucratic systems; I was being driven mad by having my life existence being converted into a bullshit life.  I was stuck in tangled hierarchies (see Strange Loops) where systems were generating meaningless toil for me and those trying to help me.


We were all adrift in superstructures which were being organised in the symbolic abstract world lost from reference from the actuality we were living.  I could tell the worker in front of me that none of the options on the paperwork represented my situation and they frustratedly told me that this was the only tool they had to work with so to ‘pick the nearest option’.


All this speaks to me of a society which is becoming increasingly vulnerable to drowning in the abstract.  This happens in nature in Ant Mills where a number get separated from the foraging party losing the pheromone trail which they follow.  When they begin to follow their own pheromone tracks they continue to walk round in an endless circle until they eventually die of exhaustion.  This is reported as a side effect of the self organising structure of ant colonies and has been reproduced in ant colony simulations.


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In chapter 3 of his book ‘Wisdom of the Crowds’, James Surowiecki writes about ‘Monkey See, Monkey Do: Imitation, Information Cascades and Independence’.  Here he shares an account of how William Beebe found a group of army ants in the Guyanan jungle which had formed an ant mill with a 1,200 foot circumference.


It took each ant two and a half hours to complete one circuit and the ants went around and around for two days until most of them died.  The lost ants worked on a simple rule which was to follow the ant in front.  The result is the mill which only breaks up when enough ants break off by chance causing other ants to follow them.  This has also been called an ant death spiral.


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Schneirla wrote about this phenomenon in 1944 reporting it happened in other species too such as fish and processionary caterpillars.  These natural phenomena I think are good representations of what happens when we stop paying attention to the actual reality in front of us and instead pay attention solely to some abstract set of rules such as we find in policy or bureaucracies.  The mix of perverse incentives and losing connection with reality by use of abstract systems of organisation I suggest as significant problems we are facing as in our cultures (as well as a species).



Part 5: Deadweight Cost and Meaningful Work

It is important not to confuse activity with accomplishment [2] and the idea of substituting meaningful, humanizing behaviours and activities with mechanistic bureaucracies should be guarded against. William Morris warned against useless toil in his famous essay “Useful Work Vs Useless Toil” in 1884, and some of his thoughts are just as pertinent now [3].


We must understand the concepts of administrative aim, deadweight cost and the effects of excessive bureaucracies on the processes they attempt to measure and manage. What makes a useful bureaucracy reaches past the information it reduces to paper into all the extenuating circumstances of the composite reality to which administrative practices are being applied.


Down sourcing bureaucratic and administrative work load by funding gatekeepers results in a plethora of problems from deadweight cost (where the costs of administrating the policy outweigh the savings) to the displacement of the complex activity of support for reductive Payment By Results paperworks, which invariably impact on the clients in terms of either carrying out the administrative work or losing the tailored support of the worker to the displacement of their attentions onto the paperwork.


This document which you are reading is part an examination of the deadweight cost of replacing too significant amount of meaningful support/development activities with energies/time taken up with superficial paperwork and processes for Payment by Results managerial practices which over the last decades are proving socially and economically disastrous.


Onerous outcomes administration results in the ‘hampered helper’ due to shouldering the deadweight cost which is ultimately passed onto the client in a continuation of their disempowerment. Understanding the managerialism which comes with such stipulations, and that this managerialism in people’s lives creates many of the problems, is an important point for inclusion in the discourse.


The Outcomes Star presents itself as a novel approach to measuring change set against a backdrop of the ideas of empowerment and collaboration. It aims to facilitate the integration of measurement with the support work of organisations. The truth appears to be that between theoretical inception and practical implementation, a dissonance arises where antithetical cultures clash.


The marked difference between Participatory Action Research and the controlling conditions of managerialism in a neoclassical economic climate seem irreconcilable.


[2] Cranwell, Joseph, unpublished discussion quoting an employer
[3] Morris, William (1884) “Useful Work v. Useless Toil”, Lecture given to the Hampstead Liberal Club, ISBN-10: 0141036702