A Sophisticated Grunt

By Keith Morrison

Author and educationist


Sports interviewer: ‘How good is your tennis?’

Tennis player: ‘Compared to what?’

Macau quality of life researcher: ‘How good is your quality of life in Macau?’

Interviewee: ‘Compared to what?’

Researcher: ‘How satisfied are you with Macau’s social services?’

Interviewee: ‘Compared to what?’

How many times do surveys in Macau ask such questions, without any indication of criteria, standards for making judgements, and reference groups for comparisons? My tennis is fantastic, compared to a monkey’s, but hopeless and risible when compared to a Wimbledon champion. Macau’s quality of life might be OK when compared to a slum dweller, but dire when compared to a billionaire city slicker. Macau’s social services might be better than fifty years ago but weak when compared to other countries; the fact is that anyway, actually I don’t know much about Macau’s social services, so who am I to judge?

Here we are, with a new Chief Executive at the helm of Macau. So, expect surveys of satisfaction with, or judgements of, his performance, or that of Macau’s Legislative Assembly and Secretaries, after, say, 100 days, six months, a year in office. The problem is that opinions without criteria, evidence, context, comparison elements and standards are little more than a sophisticated grunt. A pig in a field of mud is satisfied; a pig put into an immaculate salon with exquisite porcelain displays and oil paintings on the walls is not.

Whatever terms an organisation uses for its forward planning and subsequent achievement review and evaluation – strategic plans, action plans, road maps, five-year development plans, goals, targets and indicators – a key element is that they set criteria, standards, evidence, context, comparison factors, and outcomes for evaluating and judging performance, with time scales and deadlines.

Consider, then, the recent progress report on the Macau government’s Five-Year Development Plan, which had not met its targets in some areas, e.g. law making and construction. ‘No surprises there’, you might say; ‘this is Macau, and we’re used to that’. It’s almost de rigueur for projects in Macau not to meet their targets; it’s not the Macau style for projects to be on time and targets to be met. Heaven forfend!

It was reported that Macau’s Five-Year Development Plan had been successful in 90 per cent of tasks for traffic system improvement, environmental protection, and development in gaming and non-gaming sectors. How is it, then, I ask myself, that the traffic system remains awful, streets in Macau and Taipa are like bombsites, pollution of all kinds is inescapable, non-gaming revenue still accounts for less than ten per cent of Macau’s income, and the health system achieved only half of its completion goals, and yet there is 90 per cent achievement? Answer: low standards and weak comparison criteria.

We have familiar, routinely cranked out responses to such shortfalls in Macau: promises to strengthen, improve and do better, often couched in vacuous terminology so that the parties responsible cannot be held to account. There are no reference groups; outcomes, standards, evidence and criteria are so general that simply laying a brick on a wall could count as evidence of ‘construction’. We have pledges such as the government will ‘focus on improving quality’ and improve Macau’s ‘social security system, housing, healthcare, education’ and so on; impressive but hollow, like shouting in an echo chamber or an empty concert hall. What do these mean in terms of practices, targets, outcomes, indicators, evidence, standards and criteria for evaluation? Where are the planned, concrete outcomes? High sounding commitments but with no substance, i.e. noise, are commonplace in Macau.

Of course, a simple solution would have been to rename the Five-Year Plan a Ten-Year Plan, or a Twenty-Year Plan, i.e. to lower expectations and set even lower standards couched in non-specific terminology. This would be cheating, if attractive. Rather, to repeat myself, we need concrete targets, deadlines, indicators, evidence, criteria, standards and comparison elements for reference, specific outcomes that are fit for purpose and which are suitably demanding in terms of assessable achievements, and for which the Chief Executive, the Legislative Assembly and Secretaries can be held accountable. Without these, plans are simply nicely worded aspirations and wish-lists, like a pig looking longingly at next door’s field of mud.