Cult of Efficiency

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Janice Gross Stein’s “The Cult of Efficiency,” read at a CBC Massey Lecture in 2001, attempts to define the concept of efficiency and how it has impacted our society in the past and present. Stein effectively applies this concept to many different sectors of our culture through examples and analysis of how it is delivered. Her thesis summarizes the overall ideas of her article, however it was not easily found in her introduction as it was not stated until the end of the fifth paragraph. The full statement is as follows, “Efficiency, or cost-effectiveness, has become an end in itself, a value often more important than others. But elevating efficiency, turning it into an end, misuses language, and this has profound consequences for the way we as citizens conceive of public life. When we define efficiency as an end, divorced from its larger purpose, it becomes nothing less than a cult (Stein, 2001).” The last sentence acts as a directional statement linking the thesis and the rest of the paper, and introduces the notion of a “cult,” which Stein later defines with its relation to efficiency. As stated by Stein (2001), “We live in an age dominated by cult efficiency.” Efficiency is very important as long as it is used correctly; it must always be considered when resources are scarce and citizens and governments have important choices to make among competing priorities. Public education and health care, locally and globally, are often referred to in Stein’s argument on efficiencies and their delivery. She argues that what will define the quality of education and health care is whether citizens and experts can negotiate new standards of accountability, as efficiency will not do enough. Stein (2001) uses an example of a report that stated Ontario’s post-secondary institutions were “generally efficient,” but did not say what exactly these institutions were efficient at. This is an example of how the cult of efficiency takes away from focusing on the quality of education, and instead prides itself on lower administration costs. The key to understanding the definition of efficiency by first understanding its effectiveness in achieving whatever is to be accomplished. However, Stein (2001) points out that often effectiveness is not always considered when discussing efficiency, and when the emphasis turns to cost, the “cult” becomes stronger. Stein (2001) additionally explored the efficiency of non-governmental organizations, as reports have called for “greater efficiency” with their work. Evidently this is not an easy question to answer, as there are many different tasks and background work that goes into what NGOs do. One must consider what a certain NGO seeks to accomplish and the difficulties their work experiences before beginning to question their effectiveness. Additionally, weighing the effectiveness of an NGO on its administrative costs compared to total spending can misguide one’s analysis as many do not consider the difficulty of their tasks. Furthermore, the reduction of administrative costs could negatively impact the work needing to be done worldwide, therefore leading Stein to the conclusion that understanding the main objectives of the NGOs is essential for deciding on their efficiency. Consumers, Stein rightly states, have expectations for the public services government and institutions provide to be delivered efficiently. This need for efficiency has greatly increased since the industrial revolution when productivity was able to increase, as Stein explains through the findings of Adam Smith. Smith applied the concept of efficiency to making a pin in a factory, explaining that division of labour and markets allowed for gains in efficiency of production. Stein furthermore explains this by stating that, “the individual pursuit of self-interest would collectively control individual excess and promote the public good.” Moreover, as modern science revolutionized our relationship with nature, the way we see ourselves, and...
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