Many Americans still admit to being flummoxed by hectares, litres, kilometres, and all the decimal exotica cooked up in the smoke-filled salons of the European continent. But sorting steres from deciares is child’s play compared with navigating modern civilization’s other metric system: the cult of METRICS in the world of social policy and programs.

Change one or two words, and the following sentence will nestle snugly into the writing of any branch of the human services: “The failure of the mental health industry to devise adequate metrics to capture long-term outcomes has resulted in confusion as to appropriate timing and levels of intervention.” The phrase “to devise adequate metrics” is apparently the universal choice to replace the hopelessly outdated and déclassé verb “to measure.” We no longer count anything in the digital age. We now devise metrics.

“Without metrics of success,” says a recent foundation paper, “it is impossible to say with certainty whether the results of neighborhood redevelopment in the past 20 years justify the level of investment.” The sentence is remarkable not so much for its use of METRICS-it would be much more remarkable to find a piece of foundation writing that does not use the term-but for its specific application to the field of neighborhood development. Here, one might have supposed, is a branch of American philanthropy and social policy that is among the most metricked civic activities in history.

Neighborhood development groups in the past 20 or 30 years have made an art of counting new houses, refurbished apartments, reclaimed blocks, numbers of investors and lenders, square feet of renovated commercial space, and (with a more fanciful standard of reckoning) the number of jobs added to the neighborhood employment base. Compared with neighborhood development, only professional baseball is more awash in metrics. So what more is the author of the quoted sentence looking for?

The key is in the seemingly innocent word “success.” In modern philanthropic usage, what distinguishes METRICS from mere measurement is that the fancier word gauges success-or, as the mental health writer would have it, “long-term outcomes.” Metrics are contemporary social policy’s equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone – an elusive but potent medium that transforms the base metal of mere results into the unalloyed gold of “long-term outcomes.” Building houses and treating illnesses are fine, but will they permanently solve the deeper problems? Seek ye the metric that will pierce that mystery. And be prepared for a long search.

(To be fair to the alchemists who sought the Philosopher’s Stone: They may have been a little confused about the limits of chemistry, but at least they knew for certain what gold was. The same cannot be said for those seeking today’s “long-term outcomes.”)

Striving for better and better ways of recognizing success and failure is a mark of excellence. Foundations can be justly proud of their pursuit of that goal. But showering the field with METRICS, and then arrogating to the term all the powers of divine wisdom, hardly advances the cause. At best, the fruits of human services will someday be gauged over longer time periods, and units of comparison may come to fit more and more aspects of human progress. But even then, the methods will still be those of measurement, plain and simple, and the resulting standards of “success” will still be partial, relative, and open to debate. The use of METRICS perfumes the whole enterprise with a false whiff of approaching finality. It seems to imply that someday mere measurement will become obsolete, replaced with something more conclusively scientific and indisputable. Around that superstition, with its gilded vocabulary of metrics and outcomes, gathers a new generation of cowled alchemists gibbering their way through the Information Age.

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