‘Efficiency’ is one of those words politicians like to use. They talk about cutting back on wasteful, needless spending, trimming the fat out of the system, making everything streamlined and cost effective.
Efficient hospitals have no spare beds to deal with entirely predictable winter flu crises.
Efficient councils have no resources or workforce ready to deal with unexpected problems, be that flooding, heavy snow, trees brought down in gales, power cuts, lack of drinking water and so forth.
Efficient schools can’t cope in the years when there are more children than expected needing school places.
Efficient work places can’t cope with employee illness. They have far less scope for resilience when faced with unexpected challenges or setbacks.
Life seldom goes entirely as predicted. People get ill and a system that assumes it needs no slack in it to offset against sick days and people not being able to deliver, is a system bound to fail. Systems that don’t have anything to spare for the unexpected have no choice but to squeeze people harder in order to get the same results. Squeezed, pressured people get sick and ill – and the efficient system isn’t equipped to deal with that and can only respond by squeezing harder and making everything worse. Stress related sickness costs economies a fortune.
Paring everything back to the bare minimum to cut costs and avoid ‘waste’ is often a really inefficient choice. Any system working this way is incredibly vulnerable to the slightest problem.
In a crisis, efficiency kills people. Cuts to the NHS in the UK led to an estimated 10,000 deaths this winter. That’s a very high price to pay for saving money. Why on earth would be let ourselves be persuaded that saving money is more important than saving lives?
When a pared to the bone system hits an inevitable crisis, it costs a lot of money. One way or another. It may not be an immediately obvious cost. It may be a long term cost in health, skills, social engagement. It may be a long term cost that will increase crime, or violence, or abuse. Efficiency is incredibly costly when it falls apart.
To cope with life’s variables and uncertainties, we don’t need to be efficient. We need to be flexible. We need to have options. Take a long term look at the cost/benefit analysis, and slashing everything back turns out not to be even slightly cost effective. Flexibility and adaptability are key survival skills for all things in all contexts. Efficiency can deprive us of scope to adapt, and room for innovation.