Effective and efficient – is that good enough?


I had a very interesting conversation with someone this week about their perceptions of education in East Lothian. Their perception was that we provide an “effective and efficient” service.

I suppose I should have been delighted with such a description but I couldn’t help feeling it fell some way short of what it is we are trying to do in educational terms in East Lothian.

The notion of Effective and Efficient public services is a permeating theme across the globe, e.g, US, Scotland, Europe, Australia, UK and is perhaps accepted thinking as the mantra of what public services should be about – particularly at a time of economic challenge.

However, I couldn’t help thinking that effective and efficient might be good ways of describing a bus service or a central heating system but surely education must have higher aspirations?  As ever my wife wondered what I was on about as she would be quite happy if a school could be described as effective and efficient. 

Perhaps this is all brought into closer focus with the publication this week of the Best Value Review of East Lothian Council. It’s is interesting to see the statement released by Isabelle Low, the Deputy Chair of the Accounts Commission about the review: “They need to be effective, they need to be efficient” (they being the entire council). As a senior officer in the authority I shoulder some of the responsibility for what is a very critical report – but recent changes give rise for optimism about the future.

But to return to my theme – Effective and Efficient – I thought it might be worthwhile to return to the dictionary and consider their definitions:

ef·fec·tive  adj.

1. a. Having an intended or expected effect. b. Producing a strong impression or response; striking: gave an effective performance as Othello; 2. Operative; in effect: The law is effective immediately; 3. Existing in fact; actual: a decline in the effective demand. ; Prepared for use or action, especially in warfare.

In public service terms 1.a. is closest definition – i.e. we are having an intended or expected effect. For me however, this is too broad and doesn’t provide any qualitative statement about the service being provided – what if your intenions or expectations are too low?

ef·fi·cient  adj.

1. Acting directly to produce an effect: an efficient cause; 2.  a. Acting or producing effectively with a minimum of waste, expense, or unnecessary effort; b. Exhibiting a high ratio of output to input.

In public service terms all of the above would be of relevance i.e. we would be wanting to produce an effect – probably the one we would have identified under effectiveness; we would want to provide that effect with a minimum of waste, etc; and we would want to provide that effect at a high ratio of output to input.

Considering both of the definitions of both of these words I think my problem lies with “effective” i.e. it’s too bland and provides no qualitative judgement – it’s either done or not done. Consider the following:

My car gets me from home to work – it is effective.

Our plumber fixed our toilet – he was effective

The council’s refuse collection service  picks up our rubbish every Tuesday – it is effective.

The question remains about education – what would effective performance look like in education? – would it just be a simple yes or no?

Over the next few days I’d like to explore this further but I’ll conclude this post with mention of Effectiveness

An ordinary way to distinguish among effectiveness, efficacy, and efficiency:

  • efficiency: Getting things done
  • effectiveness: doing the “right” things
  • effectivity: a level of getting things done
  • efficacy: Doing things “right”

4 thoughts on “Effective and efficient – is that good enough?

  1. People often use the term effective when describing a piece of music, to convey the idea that the composer achieved the desired effect through the means chosen. This is a point of view which could, if challenged, be defended. This is less the case when one uses a more highly charged and personal term like brilliant or even emotional. Rather than damning with faint praise, I think the idea is more about conferring praise which won’t be taken as throw-away, insincere or merely subjective.

  2. Alan

    This is very interesting – would a musician really like their work to be described as effective?

    You are an effective guitar teacher – does that capture what you are about?

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  4. Perhaps a film composer might settle for “effective” as a compliment – but most musicians would, I’m sure, prefer something that suggested they had transported the listener. Effective teacher? Many in the profession would hope for “inspiring” but people rarely dish out such compliments as they can seem subjective. Perhaps it’s just a Scottish thing – or perhaps there are two parallel modes of complimenting – one to describe the effect (accidental pun) something has had upon you and another to describe your impression of something you are observing from the outside. People tend, in my experience, to let rip more in the former.

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