The intent: To encourage schools to improve standards of education so more children achieve passing grades.
The reality: Parents start pulling strings to get their kids into the "good" schools. Schools in neighborhoods where their intake is inherently unmotivated suffer, no matter how good the teaching. Schools in a position to do so start being more selective in who they will accept. School teachers only allow children to sit exams who they think will pass. Instead of raising standards of education, many kids are actively denied the opportunity to stretch themselves.
IT help desk is outsourced, and the vendor is paid by the number of incident tickets resolved.
The intent: A simple measure that costs little to implement and results in fair payment for the volume of work performed.
The reality: The vendor is motivated to inflate the number of tickets opened. Every time a client calls to inquire on the status of a ticket already open - bang, you get a new ticket to log the call which is then promptly closed. Also tickets get closed whether or not they are properly resolved, and the when the client complains - you guessed it - a new ticket is opened. Result: frustrated clients and poor customer service.
Government starts measuring hospital waiting lists
The intent: To benefit patients by reducing the wait time for operations.
The reality: Doctors find ingenious ways to avoid putting people onto waiting lists in the first place. Patients miss out on badly-needed surgery as they jump endless hoops of referrals and tests.
People are elected into positions of power based on the number of votes they can garner
The intent: To use the collective wisdom of an educated electorate to select those most fit to govern.
The reality: Gaining votes becomes an end in itself, in a game which favors the most ruthless lying slimeballs imaginable. Truth is an early casualty, and actual fitness to govern doesn't get a look in.
Does anyone see a theme emerging?
In all these examples, and many more that I'm sure you could come up with, someone is measuring something that sounds perfectly reasonable, and with the noblest of intentions, but the outcome is far removed from the intent.
The moral of the story is - beware what you choose to measure, because measurement distorts behavior, often in unpredictable ways.
You think you are pushing people in one direction, but your act of measurement is in fact producing lots of forces in directions you never envisaged - and the system you are measuring will always move in the direction of least resistance. This will rarely be the outcome you expected.
This insight is part of the line of thinking in my "Citizens first" series of posts, which is all about putting citizens back in the frame as majority beneficiaries in our own society.
In order to achieve this goal, we need to find new ways to measure success - other than by the unfettered acquisition of money. Ways that will genuinely motivate individuals, corporations, and governments to think of the ordinary citizen first and foremost, and which will yield the outcomes we want to see.