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The curse of ‘best practice’

Published on 06 May 2010
Updated on 16 September 2023

Efficiency is the game in town, and “best practice” is the way to go forward. Such is the received wisdom. But is it so?

On the most banal level – “best practice” leads to boredom. When all the tennis players have learned to play like Roger Federer, we’ll just have a game of clones. F1 races are a case in point, and so are many other sports events. “Creative writing” courses are killing literature. I could go on.

The matter is made worse by the very human attitude is using symbols to signify a complex reality (it saves time). When we replace faith by devotion, and make devotion into “best practice” – we get a trite rite. Much of religion is getting that way – as the current discussion over veils for Muslim women attest. Wearing the scarf is not the essence of Islam, though the heat generated by this subject matter might mislead us in thinking so. From fad to prescribed practice, to essence of Islam – this is the way of all fundamentalism – and “best practice” is its faithful (and oppressive) servant.

“Best practice” entails hidden costs. It might be best practice to fly to London from the Continent. When trains and Channel ferries are scrapped as redundant, the social gain in efficiency is welcomed – until flying is no longer possible due to the unforeseen eruption of an Icelandic volcano. “Best practice” squeezes out redundancy, yet redundancy is our best bet in meeting the unexpected. More precisely: the benefits of efficiency are internalised by the market participants – but the costs of redundancy are externalised into the public domain. The state becomes the provider of redundancy of last resort, or the one that foots the bill for the system failure.

The near collapse of the € is a case in point. The € is, of course, “best practice”. The failure of Greece, so Paul Krugman, was not so much profligate policies by the Greek Government, as much as “best policy practices” adopted under forecasts of sustained growth. These policies were no longer adapted after the 2008 world economic crisis. Having scrapped the Drachma for the €, the government of Greece was denied policy instruments to cope with the unexpected. The repercussions are bringing the whole €-zone into disrepute. And here too: contrary to 1992, when the EMS (European Monetary System) failed and national currencies were allowed to float anew against each other, there is no redundancy, or “way back”. We cannot re-introduce the DM or the FF, without having thw whole European construction fail as well. “Best practice” has misled us into burning our bridges to alternative – or fall-back – strategies.

But what is “best practice” in the end? Jerome Groopman has recently discussed the merits of “evidence-based” against “anecdotic” medicine that has been practiced so far. “Evidence-based” medicine entails controlled experiments to determine the effectiveness of medical practices – no longer is the wise man or woman in white or green to judge the applicable medical treatment: too much subjectivity (some call it experience). In order to achieve “evidence-based” results a very special type of patient is required: patients that only have the condition under investigation, so one can do the “with/without” experiment. The problem is: such patients are very rare in practice. Usually medical conditions are complex, and “evidence-based” prescriptions may be misappropriate under such circumstances.

“Best practice” may not be used without its companion: the “theory of second best” – what is the strategy if “best practice” is not feasible? The “theory of second best” can be paraphrased to state that “if jumping across a ravine is the ideal way forward, jumping half as far is not a good approximation”. Rather, one may have to take the long road down into the gully, and then up the other side. says the theory of second best. The problem, in other words, is that by definition “best practice” brooks not even the least deviation from its own prescription, lest its value be lost.

Or put another way: the “best” arises only from the radical elision of context. Add context – aka realism – and “best” vanishes in a cloud of sulphuric smoke. “Best practice” should be no more than a heuristic – the default starting position for evaluating the way forward under the circumstances. To the extent that a heuristic transmogrifies into a rule – or God forbid, a “value” or “principle” – we are buying ourselves a bag of problems.

But we are “rule-” and “value-“ or even “principle-“ based, are we not? Enter “consistency” the scourge of any reality-based thinking. “Best practice” is the best shoe-in for legalism and fundamentalism. Long live the muddy compromise.

by Aldo Matteucci

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