Step 4(b)

The UK government worries about unemployment

Unemployment is generally agreed to be a good thing for governments to worry about.

  • There is an argument that employed people are happier
  • There is an argument that employed people will vote for you
  • There is an argument that employed people pay more taxes

Either which way, if you are in government, unemployment is worth worrying about.

So the UK government applied a little improvement methodology

They had a go at using the improvement cycle. It went like this:

Step 1. They measured unemployment rates

Step 2. They changed some things they thought would make a difference

Step 3. They checked to see if they had made a difference

Did they reduce unemployment?

I don’t really know.

But what I can tell you is that they made a methodological mistake. They didn’t use the recommended approach.

The recommend approach is:

Step 4. Act on what you have learnt and try again

What the UK government did instead was:

Step 4(b). Change the way they measured the problem

In the 1980’s the UK government liked this approach so much that they changed the basis for calculating unemployment rates over 23 times.

No doubt somebody would argue that getting a “more accurate assessment of unemployment” helped refine policies and the intervention strategy.

Personally (cynically?) I guess that the only real change to employment was that a lot of statisticians found jobs.

A rule of thumb about Step 4(b)

It doesn’t work.

If you are spending time changing the metric so you can manage the message, then all you are doing is managing the message, not the situation.

Party Political Note

I have little doubt that the current incumbents of Number 10 Downing Street have also been seduced by step 4(b) on occasion (and the White House, 24 Sussex Drive and the Steward’s Lodge as well for that matter). But that is, of course, only conjecture on my part.

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Image by The Prime Minister’s Office


  1. James,

    Sadly, this is the same issue in the US, too. I scratch my head (as do many others) as to why (I do know why) we measure unemployment the way we do.

    Love the analogy, though.

    If you don’t like the numbers, change the numbers… or the way you measure them. Sigh…

    So much for root cause analysis… and getting to the heart of the matter.

    Annette :-)

  2. Hi James,
    What worries me about unemployment right now is what they are not taking into account…..the rise of part-time workers.

    Maybe they should be measuring how many people are or are not fully employed?


    • James Lawther says:

      I don’t think it matters so much what they measure Adrian, so long as they keep on measuring the same thing.

      Then at least they will have an understanding to work from.


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