The curse of ‘best practice’
Updated on 09 November 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 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 of using symbols to signify a complex reality (it saves time). When we replace faith with 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 attests. 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 the 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 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 euro is a case in point. The euro is, of course, best practice. According to economist Paul Krugman, the failure of Greece was not so much a result of profligate policies by the Greek government, but rather the adoption of ‘best policy practices’ under forecasts of sustained growth. These policies were no longer adapted after the 2008 world economic crisis. Having scrapped the drachma for the euro, the government of Greece was denied policy instruments to cope with the unexpected. The repercussions are bringing the whole Eurozone into disrepute. And here too, contrary to 1992, when the European monetary system failed and national currencies were allowed to float anew against each other, there is no redundancy or ‘way back’. We cannot reintroduce the Deutschmark or the French franc without having the 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, physician and staff writer in medicine for The New Yorker, has recently discussed the merits of ‘evidence-based’ against ‘anecdotal’ medicine that has been practised 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 because of 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 a ‘with/without’ experiment. The problem is that such patients are very rare in practice. Usually, medical conditions are complex and ‘evidence-based’ prescriptions may be inappropriate under some circumstances.
Theory of second best
Best practice may not be used without its companion – the economic ‘theory of second best’. What is the strategy if best practice is not feasible? This theory suggests that if a particular condition to achieve the best outcome cannot be met, the next best option may not simply be a lesser version of the ideal but may require a completely different approach, or ‘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 a ‘best’ practice or solution is often deemed as such only when we disregard the complexities and nuances of the real-world situation. Add context (aka ‘realism’), and ‘best’ vanishes in a cloud of sulphuric smoke. Best practice should be no more than a heuristic, i.e. 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.