Vacuum Sales and Organizational Reporting

When I lived in a Fine Arts Residence 20 or so years ago, I saw, heard and read all sorts of weird and wonderful things that I don’t think I would have ever experienced in any other setting. One of those experiences was a weekly group reading of Raymond Carver’s 1976 collection of short stories called Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? If you aren’t familiar with Carver, he is a rather gloomy, minimalist writer in the “New Realism” school. Time and location aren’t always clear in his short stories. So different than other literature I had been exposed to in high school, I really enjoyed Carver.

One of the short stories contained within Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? is called Collectors. In a nutshell there is an unemployed guy waiting at home for mail to come (as I recall), and instead a door-to-door vacuum salesman arrives. My impression from the story is that the vacuum salesman knew that a sale was unlikely/impossible, yet he enters into the home and does the full vacuum demonstration anyway. It comes across as absurd – yet depressingly realistic – as the vacuum salesperson goes through the complete sales pitch, in what seems to take hours, to someone who will never buy the product. (There is even some confusion in the story as to whether the vacuum salesman is speaking with the right person.)

A couple of paragraphs in, I suspect some of you are wondering what the heck this has to do with the usual blog content.

Well, I have been thinking quite a bit over the past few months about how and to whom organizations report to, what the process is really all about and whose interests it serves. I think if we don’t get four critical questions and answers right any type of funding and accountability goes out the window regardless of whether we are investing in education, health care, housing, homelessness, employment programs, etc. The four important questions to me are:

1. When do organizations report?

A lot of times this is an annual exercise. There are lost opportunities for internal improvements and messaging if it doesn’t happen ideally monthly, quarterly at a minimum.

2. What is the purpose of the reporting?

It should be to fulfill all aspects of Performance Management, not just Performance Measurement. Yes, there will be some backward looking accounting at outputs and expenses to date, but the real purpose of reporting should be forward looking. Reports should inform program improvements, managerial and board decisions, policy development, research and human resources. We should also use reports as a communication vehicle with the people that are served, at staff meetings, with funders and with the broader community.

3. When are those reports accepted or rejected by decision-makers?

Most often reports are passively accepted. There may be some monitoring in some communities, but it isn’t as rigorous as I think it should be. But rejecting a report? Almost unheard of, yet crucially important. I think if we want to change the culture within organizations to be evidence-informed and data-driven in their decision making then scrutiny of reports has to start internally with the organization. If an organization is willing to ask the hard questions of themselves then they are more apt to want to engage in dialogue with the tough questions externally.

4. What are the consequences of having their reports accepted or rejected?

This, too, has two sides. We need to celebrate and promote those organizations and communities that take reporting seriously, do a bang up job and it informs their practice. And for those that are rejected, the starting point has to be program and reporting remediation. It is only after that has not been successful that I would advocate for pulling funding. But make no mistake about it, even with considerable political pressures at times, if a program sucks and is not defensible I am a strong advocate for decreasing or rescinding funding and reinvesting that money in programs that are proven to work. Yes some people’s jobs will be at risk. But you know what? As far as I am concerned some people’s lives are at risk if we aren’t investing in the right programs at the right times to do the right things.

 

Which takes me back to Carver’s Collectors. If we aren’t going to take reporting seriously, isn’t that akin to selling a vacuum to someone who will never buy it – a complete waste of time? If we don’t do anything – positively or negatively – with reports when received, isn’t that much like the unemployed guy who really can’t get a vacuum yet the demonstration is filling his time? And if recipients of reports don’t really know what to do with them, isn’t that kind of like the confusion of the vacuum salesman who may have the wrong person?

For goodness sake, don’t report for reporting sake. We are all too busy for that. Report because it makes a difference, and it will only make a difference if reporting is taken seriously internally and externally – if there are consequences to what the reports demonstrate.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong