False proxies are results that are easy to measure and appear on the surface to be related to actual success of a person, program, or organization. The idea is that the higher these measurements seem, the greater the success at accomplishing some real mission.
The problem is that there are often ways to show growth in one of these false proxies, without actually having much success towards having a real increased impact.
Here are a few false proxies that have particularly frustrated me:
1. Volunteer hours are a false proxy for community impact.
2. Standardized test scores are a false proxy for student learning (let alone for student ability to think for herself, have innovative ideas, be ready for a career, etc.). For that matter, in many cases, grades may also be a false proxy for all of those things.
3. Number of school events planned and dollar value of supplies collected through in-kind donations are false proxies for the likelihood of students dropping out of school. (Particularly if the opportunity cost of increasing these proxies is really a decreased focus on other things that may actually have more of an impact on dropout rates.)
In all of these situations, increasing the false proxy is not necessarily a bad thing (in fact, if done carefully, most of those things can actually have a very positive impact). However, for all of these false proxies, just making every effort to increase the proxy doesn’t automatically imply that real progress is actually being made towards achieving the real objectives. It is often possible to increase the proxy measurement without increasing real success.
What frustrates me is that people and organizations focus on increasing the proxies while sometimes forgetting about the real goals which are supposedly being measured by the proxies.