For a few years I worked with the CBF to write funny, pertinent, thought-provoking and controversial columns for their news letters. I wasn't sure how they'd be received, but I have to say, we were very pleased how positively many parents and direct support staff found them. They laughed and cried. Below is the last column. You can find more here. Or go back to 'Writing'.

Counting Stuff (Spring, 2013, Column)

If you needed to count stuff, I was your man. Challenging behaviour? Count it! Services? Count them! Measure satisfaction, the number of complaints, the number of times people got things right. Hours of service received? Counted! It was one of the natural consequences of working in in the NHS. It only counts if counted. And if you’re really good, you can run those numbers into computers that will produce really cool looking graphs even when you’ve no idea what they mean, but even so... a statistical test here, a regression there. “Ah, but the numbers, Mrs Smith, show no tears and plenty of support hours. Stop complaining...”

The numbers are what mattered, because I equated numbers to evidence for all the right reasons, I’m sure. But I had developed a habit. But I too was measured on my measuring.

I thought I’d start a PhD before I retire, as you do. So I thought I’d try to kick the counting addiction. Boy, did I find some interesting stuff I hadn’t noticed, being too busy counting. One of the most obvious things to people busy counting stuff is that a lot of other interesting stuff isn’t counted. Like stories. Or happiness. Or loneliness. It began to dawn on me (my wife would say “D’oh!” at this point) all my counting may not be what it was all about. I was harvesting numbers, not stories.

We can count plenty: what is harder to count is what these things mean and do. My counting your partner winking is fine, but it doesn’t tell me how your heart skips a beat when he winks at you. I can count the people in your community, not what they do or why they make you feel like life is worth facing each morning come dawn.

I received an email from someone on the other side of the world telling a story about doing some observations (counting!) in a service that had adopted active support- helping people stay busy and involved. She said the data were good- people were very busy. Staff knew the correct answers to questions. For one man living in this service the data involved being harangued until he did the washing when, she wrote, he clearly didn’t want to, and only complied once called names by a staff member, who then rushed off to record a successful activity had been completed.

I still like numbers (some addictions are hard to shake, like Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia). But I try to remember Winterbourne produced convincing numbers too: number of plans, number of staff, number of meetings, money saved, number of regulatory inspections passed and minimum standards passed. As if setting a minimum standard was sufficient to help people get a life! But those numbers are easy to measure compared to listening honestly to families and people using services, to hear when numbers are not enough.

My name is Tony and I’m a recovering behaviourist. Put down your calculator.