Beware of 'efficiency'

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Beware of 'efficiency'
© Belga

One of the things I try to emphasise to business students is that of all the words which are used to try to justify what people want to do, the most dangerous is ‘efficiency.’ This is not because it’s better to be inefficient than to be efficient – of course not – but because you can always be sure that what is termed ‘efficient’ will be defined in such narrow terms that it isn’t really ‘efficient’ at all.

A good example was reported in The Brussels Times when it explained that a business consultancy had recommended that the Brussels waste management agency Bruxelles-Propreté (ABP) should cut down on the number of rubbish collections it delivers in order to become more ‘efficient.’

I lived for many years in the UK and I have to say that the collection of general rubbish in Brussels twice a week and specific items like paper, plastic and garden waste once a week is one of the delights of living here. It is so much more ‘efficient,’ if you just for a moment stand back from a narrow criterion of ‘efficiency’.

There are parts of the UK where general rubbish is collected once every two weeks. As a result, even big ‘wheelie bins’ overflow with rubbish, there’s a marked tendency to indulge in fly-tipping, neighbours quarrel about whether they’ve been using the bins of others and bags are hauled away and dumped in (or next to) public waste bins. ‘Efficient’? You must be joking!

‘The auditors say that the number of people employed has more to do with the social function the agency considers it has, than with any consideration of efficiency,’ The Brussels Times reports. So a social function is ‘inefficient’? Why? I would have thought that taking a ‘social function’ into account was an essential part of operating efficiently. That’s why buses wait for the elderly to get on before driving off and leaving them behind, on the grounds that it would be more ’efficient’ to get to the terminus in less time. 

What the report is really saying is that the only ‘efficient’ option is the cheapest – and even that isn’t true when one thinks of the economic cost in wider terms, that is to say in terms of the extra costs of collecting rubbish that has been dumped in the wrong place or even the economic costs of cutting jobs and having more people unemployed.

The real question, I would suggest, is why a waste management agency cannot use its own expertise in order to make decisions about how to improve its services. Why does it have to call in – doubtless at great expense - a so-called ‘consultancy’ which comes to conclusions that defy common sense? What a very inefficient approach!

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