Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Benchmarking – a new religion?

Ireland is my adopted home, so I don’t like to be too critical. It has been good to me. But I am worried about benchmarking.

Over these past thirteen years, I have often been asked by Irish friends what I miss most about America (blue skies, Thanksgiving), and, more revealingly, how the Irish are different from Americans. When I am in America, no one asks me how Americans are different from the Irish. So I suppose one way the Irish are different is that they care to know. (Would that the Americans did too.) Other than that, I am hard pressed for concrete observations, especially in these post-Tiger years. Whereas in 1993 and 1994 I might have described Ireland as less of a consumer society, I’d not do so today. (As I write, an Irish Times billboard outside my window asks, ‘Is shopping the new religion’) I am a lecturer, and back in 1993 I would also have said that Irish college students were less outspoken than their American counterparts. I no longer find that to be the case. And today in Ireland, ethnicity is everywhere, so I have stopped feeling that the country I live in is homogenous. The home-grown Irish are still more into football and pub-life than most Americans. That song remains the same.

But Irish change, however difficult to pinpoint, has been rapid, and I think we can all be forgiven for feeling a bit skittish about how our values are evolving and where they may be taking us. (That’s if one can even speak as a ‘we’ these days. Perhaps Irish society has become too diverse for presumptuously univocal rhetorical questions.) In any case, clear headed reflection would do no harm right now. But instead the knee-jerk reaction of those with even modicums of power and influence seems to be to ‘benchmark’.

I work in third-level education, where we benchmark from dawn to dusk. It’s maddening and, please God, extreme. But if you do a quick Google-Ireland search for the term ‘benchmarking’, you will find the whole country is doing it. You yourself may have been asked to benchmark something today. The entire public sector is benchmarking. Manufacturing is benchmarking. Telecomms is benchmarking. Childcare is benchmarking. So are pharmaceuticals, unions, realtors, caretakers. Even hairdressing is benchmarking. In all, Google lists 175,000 sites for us to learn about benchmarking in Ireland. Not that benchmarking is unique to Ireland. It happens most everywhere. Ireland didn’t make it up. That’s what worries me. Ireland doesn’t seem to be making much up.

Sustainable Energy Ireland’s website says that “the idea of benchmarking is to develop meaningful indicators, allowing firms to compare their energy performance with industry norms and best practice standards”. Makes sense. It goes on to say that “some industries and commercial bodies already carry out this process and are aware of the sense of motivation that can be got from benchmarking with other sites in the corporate group. For top-of-the-league plants, it can inspire a healthy sense of competitiveness and pride about being the best at what they do. And for those some way down the list, it can encourage management and staff to try harder”. Nothing wrong with trying harder. Nothing wrong with efficient energy performance in manufacturing plants or with firms competing to conserve the most energy. Energy conservation is an inarguable good.

But it wasn’t long ago that RTÉ [the Irish State Broadcaster]
tried to sack a bunch of veteran meteorologists in favour of younger, more TV friendly weather ‘presenters’ like all the big networks out yonder have. How long will it be before the respectful and appropriate sobriety of a Brian Dobson is threatened by a salacious Fox News-style reporter, mouth nearly foaming over the latest gangland shooting? One wrong turn at the next benchmark, and we’re on the road to rack and ruin.

To strive for quality, originality, excellence – these aspirations would be worthwhile. But this ‘benchmarking’ smacks of mindless competition and uninspired sameness. Here in third level education, we are encouraged to think of our students as ‘customers’, become ‘reflective practitioners’, strive for ‘best practice’, and (as ever) publish as much as the Brits. If you do the Irish-Google search for benchmarking, you will find, across industries, all the same language – best practice, reflective practitioners, customers, transparency. Cut, paste, cut, paste, cut, paste. Not long ago I was in a Garda Station in South County Dublin and saw a large poster on the wall in the foyer. It said, “The Garda Customer Charter: Putting People First”. Naturally it’s a good thing for the Gards to put us first. But is it a good thing if they think of us as customers? Are we always right? Should we always get what we ask for? Or should the Guards have a special duty of care toward us that occludes the strict merchant-customer relationship? I’m not sure. But the term ‘customer’ has long standing connotations. Yet these days, much of the public sector is describing the public “the citizenr” as its ‘customer base’. Sincere effort at best practice? Or more cut and paste?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that benchmarking is inherently bad. If anything, it is probably inherently good because it allows us to make informed decisions. But benchmarking is bad if we use it simply to work out what everyone else is doing, and then do that, with little regard for what our own needs and desires are. That kind of behaviour isn’t reflective at all. It is just plain old keeping up with the Joneses, served up with so much spin.

Ireland is my adopted home. It has been good to me. It has offered me a small, incredibly exciting pond to swim in and I have really needed that. I don’t like to be critical. But I have to wonder: is benchmarking the new religion?

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