Waiting lists have often been used as a sort of litmus test for judging the popularity of various service programs. As Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene point out in Governing, this is an unreliable measure.
As state, country and local revenues shrink and the need for services grows, the words “waiting list” are showing up in news reports everywhere. But what do the numbers on a waiting list mean? It turns out that they can mean all kinds of different things, and the assumption that waiting lists in any two government entities are comparable is a dangerous one. In fact, the figures are often deeply flawed and could be used quite easily to mislead the public, policy makers and advocacy groups. In an ideal world, waiting lists wouldn’t be used to measure the gap between the number of people served and the number who want to be served. . . .But it’s not an ideal world, and there are a number of ways to manipulate the lists.
Barrett and Greene asked several experts about the ways that waiting lists can be misrepresented. Publicity makes a difference, and the people most in need may not even be on a list. In the end, unless you have all the details about who is waiting on a list, it’s hard to judge just what that information truly means.