Chapter 7: Performance Indicators and the State of Economy

The last chapter before the conclusion of The Provoked Economy (“Indicating economic action”) is about something scholars with an interest on the vagaries of public management in France recognize through a funny acronym: LOLF. That stands for a huge reform of public finance and public management carried out in the early 2000s, often presented as the vehicle of the modernization of the state, i.e. its entrance into a state of performance. And the prime fixtures in the vehicle are, as expected, performance indicators:

“Performance targets and indicators: these are the demons of today’s impulses towards a transparent, cost-efficient, governable, rational handling of economic things. We find them in all kinds of organizations. In the private sector, they usually serve management accounting and strategy precepts. In the public sector, they often accompany the orientation referred to as ‘new public management’. They are almost always involved in some movement of ‘reform’, ‘change’, ‘rationalization’ or ‘modernization’, that is, they are meant to prompt or help prompt the modification (the improvement, their advocates would say) of the things they refer to. They are certainly linked, as critical commentators like to emphasize, to the political expectations of neoliberalism (at least sometimes), but you can see them informed also by quite different ideological ventures. Their performative capacity is now perhaps a commonplace among practitioners and researchers alike: performance indicators are meant to describe things, but through the describing, the things are transformed (sometimes unintentionally, sometimes intentionally). They offer a quite fertile ground for disputes and quandaries on their semiotic purpose and efficacy.” (p. 108)

The chapter locates in the “semiotic haze” that resulted from these masses of performance indicators the particularly salient thread of “economic indication”:

“Something important in the LOLF movement had to do with the economic reality of the action of the state: its economic costs and rationales, its economic impacts and effects. Many of the struggles and quandaries that animated the semiotic haze were about the interpretation and implementation of an economic template for the state to express itself. The reform altogether was, in one way or another, about economizing. But what does this mean? Some interpreters put an emphasis on economic rationing and budgetary control while others cared more about economic drive and the provision of incentives.” (p. 113)

Some critical interpreters of the reform see indeed in it a threat. A threat to what? Not to the economic nature of the state (if it ever had one); rather to its political nature (it’s true one, some would say). The chapter contemplates these critical accounts with sympathy (the chapter refers, for example, to Albert Ogien). But it also insinuates how gloomy a praise for the political nature of the state can be, especially in the face of today’s revival of the apostle of trenchant decision against the menace of democratic softness and political emasculation — yes, that is Carl Schmitt (and here the chapter rather issues a warning). In order to tackle the complicated moral tension that there can exist between “economization” and “politicization” (a tension already pointed out here), the chapter points the reader to the problem of “politics of economization” as signaled by Michel Foucault.

The chapter examines, for example, what does “political” mean when some state practitioners talk about performance indicators that would signal and assess the “political” orientation of scientific research. It treats these sorts of semiotic situations as what Dominique Linhardt has aptly called “trials of state”. It also obeys a concern once defended by Alain Desrosières for the detailed examination of the producers of quantification (for instance, this one and this one, in the case of the assessment of the state’s performance in the scientific domain). It asks how science and innovation indicators intervene in this “semiotic haze” and how they connect or not with a certain vision of political or economic conduct:

“The LOLF’s trial of explicitness was in part about what it meant to quantify scientific production and about who was better equipped to do that. Styles of statistical work were put to the test, all with slightly different views of what quantification, science and also the state were about, and their roles in the economy. Without much surprise, indeed the state’s ‘role in the economy’ was a paramount concern in the semiotic haze, and this touched the role of scientific research, in the form of debate over state-sponsored or state-conducted scientific research and its consequences. Considering science in terms of economic effects is, of course, problematic. The name often put on that problem is ‘innovation’, a brilliant but obscure concept that conveys, sometimes hesitantly and sometimes explicitly, the idea of translating something from an area called ‘science’ (laboratories, universities, etc.) to another one called ‘the economy’ (firms, industry, technological applications, etc.). The thing that undergoes translation (knowledge?) is hard to define, but what counts are the accounting instruments that allow it to be shown that some kind of translation (or ‘transfer’ as practitioners put it) is going on: patents, revenues, those types of things which are recurrently taken as quantifiable proxies for economic effects.” (p. 121)

Finally, and linking back to the main conceptual tenets of The Provoked Economy, the chapter asks what kind of a state — a “state of economy” — is provoked through the crafts of economic indication.

“Calls for a neat distinction of outputs from outcomes generate indeed, in a performative fashion, a whole set of novel concerns, procedures and ideas of what the state is that simply did not exist as such beforehand, in my opinion. Imagine, for example, a position for which the idea of the state would be characterized, precisely, by outputs and outcomes being indistinguishable. This is a position that seems to me to be quite classical on the political identity of the sovereign state and its function in the constitution of reality, a position that is not quite sustainable now, if one is to make the state’s action explicit in line with an ‘inside/outside’, ’cause/effect’ template.” (p. 124-125)

Quite naturally, the chapter ends with a reflection on how The Provoked Economy, itself a scientific publication that enters the edifice of publicly funded research assessment, is or ought to be considered in the terms of a performance of the state.

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