The Difference between Performance and Effect

People of my generation (Baby-Boomers) and those who came before will have no problem remembering the  vaudeville act where a performer would come out on stage and place a plate on top of a stick.  He would give the plate a spin, and once he got it going, he would keep the momentum up by twisting the stick.  He would then add more plates to more sticks, continually moving back and forth between them while twisting each as it began to slow down.  Ultimately, the act would end with the performer reaching the maximum number of plates he could keep spinning.  At that point, either the plates would start to fall and shatter on the floor or he would remove them one by one without losing any.  Regardless of the final outcome, he would be applauded for his effort.

This image is the perfect illustration of performance versus effect.  It is extremely important for Americans to understand this distinction if we are to continue to enjoy a free, safe, and prosperous republic.  To explain it verbally, performance is "doing things right," while effect is "doing the right thing."  Our showman might be able to keep ten plates going at the same time for half an hour (I doubt few of them did, since the thrill of this sort of display wears off pretty rapidly).  His performance could be flawless.  But while we appreciate his skill, we have to ask ourselves: what was the effect?  Other than keeping us distracted for a few minutes, we would have to admit that there really was no effect at all.

This phenomenon of distracting through performance is now rampant in our society in general and in our federal government in particular.  We don't demand any real result as long as those involved do whatever they were tasked to do in accordance with established guidelines.  Let me give two examples.  In 2007, I was a United States Marine Corps Civil Affairs Team leader in Ramadi, Iraq.  It was my second tour in Iraq, and at that time, we were focused on rebuilding that war-torn city and making it habitable again for its residents.

That tour lasted a year.  During that time, I saw U.S. government personnel from many different agencies go back and forth to endless meetings.  I saw millions of dollars spent on myriad reconstruction projects, and I participated in a number of programs designed to get the city back on its feet.  For the most part, these activities had limited success.  Some had an immediate but all too temporary effect.  Others, while revealing deficiencies in the local Iraqi government, did nothing to remedy them.  But they were all performed with consummate skill and professionalism.

When I returned to the States in 2009, I had the opportunity to read the book The Places in Between by Rory Stewart.  I had never served in Afghanistan, and the book provided me with a fascinating insight into that country's history and culture.  In it I found a footnote that struck me like a bolt of lightning.  Stewart writes:

Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of Neocolonialism.  But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth century colonial officer.  Colonial administrators may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing.  They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation.  They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language.  They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographic societies, and royal botanical gardens.  They balanced the local government and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn't their home government would rarely bail them out.  If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism.  Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention.  Their policy fails but nobody notices.  There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility.  Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed.  The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria.  In fact their very uselessness benefits them.  By avoiding any serious action or judgement, they, unlike their colonial predecessors,are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.

Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world.

These few concise paragraphs summed up completely what I had seen in Iraq.  There were no real metrics for success.  Effects were not really assessed properly since most tours lasted a year or less, and continuity with most initiatives was sorely lacking.  It reminded me of a quote I had heard years ago about Vietnam.  The reality was that "we weren't in Vietnam for thirteen years.  We were in Vietnam for one year thirteen times."

But even if effects could not be measured accurately, performance certainly could.  It was simple to point to the numbers of police officers trained, the miles of roadway paved, the lengths of fiber-optic cable laid, and so on.  But while all this activity was occurring, no one from the highest levels to the lowliest grunts on the ground could say with any certainty if we were doing the right things.  At one point, success was actually measured by how much money was being spent on reconstruction projects in your area of operations.  Those commanders who were more restrained in their spending were told to "get moving" with more projects.  Everyone was fixated on performance.

I would like to submit as a more current example the U.S. Forest Service's response to the Bighorn Fire that raged through the mountains north of Tucson, Arizona during the month of June.  My wife and I live about ten miles from where a lighting strike started the fire on an area called Pusch Ridge on the evening of June 5.  The next morning, a dense cloud of smoke was rising from the mountain.  This is not unusual for the Catalina Mountains, especially during the summer months.  That night, we watched the fire moving down Pusch Ridge toward the city.  While it was definitely a serious blaze, we both assumed that it would shortly be brought under control.  We were wrong.

Over 500 firefighters were involved in fighting the fire.  Airborne assets brought to bear included four CH-47 helicopters, firefighting DC-10s, and a Sikorsky/Erickson S-64E Skycrane.  According to initial reports, the U.S. Forest Service sought to contain the fire and let it burn itself out.  However, the fire breaks established by the Forest Service proved ineffective, and the fire jumped to unburned areas containing ample amounts of fuel.  After four weeks, the fire has destroyed 120,000 acres of beautiful desert and mountain habitat.

I will in no way denigrate the efforts of the firefighters (those on the ground and in the air) who assembled to combat this fire.  I am sure they performed with competence and bravery.  But neither will I excuse the obvious failure of those in charge to bring this fire under control before it destroyed 187 square miles of a unique ecosystem.  Having been in their position in Iraq, I know what it is like to be unable to achieve effects on target, even though you have men, resources, and equipment, simply because the overall plan is deficient or poorly established.  Those in charge should not enjoy the luxury of being excused for incompetence by hiding behind the valor of those tasked with carrying out their inadequate plans.

America has always been a country where results are more important than credentials.  There was an old saying in my father's generation that went, "If you're so smart, how come you're not rich?"  In short, what is the effect?  In order for our nation to continue to be a land off safety, security, and prosperity, we need to get back to that ethos.  President Trump's recent executive order linking hiring for government positions to skills rather than degrees is most definitely a step in the right direction.  In government, as in business, sports, science, and all other walks of life, we need people who can get things done.  Otherwise, we'll find ourselves accepting failure as a matter of course.  Then we'll just be standing around and applauding while the plates come crashing down.

If you experience technical problems, please write to