There are many policies and courses of action that reflect good ideas, but are imperfectly or poorly implemented. On my wedding day, I was trying to make efficient use of time making final arrangements before the ceremony by talking to a friend about one task whilst walking backwards in the direction of my next task. As I finished the conversation, I turned forwards whilst maintaining my momentum and promptly walked into a door that I had not realised was behind me, leaving a clearly obvious cut down my forehead for day (see right). Alongside finding it hilarious, my partner did ask why I had not thought more carefully about where I was walking. While I accepted the criticism of that question, I retained that my attempts to work efficiently on that morning were to be commended. We continue to disagree on whether the merit of my aim outweighs the demerit of my execution.
The same tension arises elsewhere. In the current UK university climate, departments are assessed, amongst other things, on the extent to which their research has influence beyond the academic community. A few weeks ago David argued that there are good reasons for academics to think about how their work has political influence and I think these reasons offer some support for assessing research ‘impact’. However, many people criticise how this assessment is implemented. Questions have been raised whether it places too much weight on easily observable, short-term impact. Such criteria would be problematic if, for example, they would not identify, and would, thereby, discourage, the immense and sustained impact of Pythagoras Theorem because many of its impacts have developed from other disciplines using it in applied research many years later. If such criticisms have merit, we, again, face the question: how should we balance valuing a policy’s basic form against valuing (or disvaluing) some of its substance?
One answer to this question says that any judgement is a case specific calculation of the consequences: do the overall benefits of the good-idea-imperfect-implementation outweigh the overall negatives? Whilst such consideration seems obviously important, this answer strikes me as a little unsatisfactory. It is often hard to know the full costs and benefits of many policies, especially in terms of how they will unfold over time. Thus, I wish to pose two additional considerations that seem important.
First, I think there may be a more general instrumental reason to value ideas that have good form, even if not good substance. Typically, it is much harder to establish policies and institutions than it is to change them. (Lisa and I have made this point about the value of promoting human rights and labour standards through the EU’s existing Generalised System of Preferences Scheme even if it is an imperfect means of doing so.) Thus, establishing structures that have good form makes an important, arguably irreplaceable, contribution to placing us in a better position to realise just states of affairs, even if it does not achieve a perfect result in its first enactment.
Second, there is a sense in which the form of a policy is important for how it locates us in respect to moral values. We can think about the aims and implementation of policy in terms of how we think about ends and means. Various matters are important in considering what means should be adopted to pursue any end, but means do not have value independent of the ends they serve. In contrast, ends are direct stipulations or manifestations of value. Similarly, whilst it clearly does matter what methods are used to implement a policy, the value of any implementation tool depends on whether the aim it is meant to advance has value. In this respect, it is the aims that set the moral stake. Thus, getting the aims right also involves making a plausible normative claim and that seems to be something that has independent value, a value that even the correct specification of implementation tools does not hold.
Neither of these points is meant to say that aims are of sole or always overriding importance. Sometimes the terms of a policy are objectionable for other reasons or they are so poor that they raises doubts about whether the alleged aims of a policy are really present at all. The point I wish to suggest is merely that in forming a judgement about policies that involve good ideas, but poor implementation, we should give some greater weight to the former. I think that captures my feeling about ‘impact’ assessment. It is, at any rate, the argument I continue to make about last minute wedding day organisation!