Thursday, 11 February 2010

Data, Doubt and Dissent (Part 2, middle bit maybe)

At a recent presentation a slide was put up using PSI made available through the MPDP initiative that ranked local authorities according to the %age of potholes (again, I know) repaired.

So Torfaen, with 3 reported holes, all fixed, came out 'top' and then the slide changed. Does that make Torfaen the best council in Britain? Does it mean they have fixed all the potholes? Does it mean the repair will last? Did we know where Torfaen ranks in the passenger kilometre travelled per day charts (I made that one up but you get the idea)? Flipping that table around does it make whoever is at the bottom the worst? Of course not.

Where does our money go indeed, and on what justification? What are the underlying statistics, the hard facts, that drive decisions, be they central, local or further devolved? Are there any (think WMD here!)? What process has been used to say yes to potholes and no to something else? What problems are we trying to solve? How do we measure the relative values of those choices? How do we influence those choices (other than at the ballot box if we have one, or if that makes a difference)? How do we reward or stigmatise the decision makers?

Policies, or projects of policies if you get me, such as the New Deal for Communities, Invest to Save Budgets and the like as well as the rise in citizen and hyperlocal news (some of it 'journalism', some not), location centric applications, the interest in maps and mapping (cf the decline in geography?), the reinvigoration of parish and town councils in some areas and the increase in local advertising expenditure, all point to other ways in which influence on these choices can be voiced.

Nevertheless identifying the problems, their causes and the options for their solution are hard enough and take time, energy, commitment and money; this is hard enough to sustain in a wealthy liberal society, however much we may decry existing mechanisms for delivery (typically 'centralised' or imposed by will of local and central government and related actors in the third sector). This is already muddied by lobbyists and pedallers of mystery but could become infinitely harder (or not) when the PSI-empowered citizen or vested interest wields their 'investigative power'.

The idea that the the public is able i.e. qualified to "root out wasteful spending and poorly negotiated contracts" is as appealing as it is absurd. It is one thing to 'track' a PFI programme but altogether another to identify 'wasteful' essential service contracts such as hospital cleaning or pothole filling or anti-aircraft missile design. BATNEEC was a widely ridiculed approach to acheiving a similar thing but did so almost exclusively in exchange for a loss of quality. RMSA and recurring potholes are a manifestation of the same 'Walmart' mentality, in an attempt to commoditise services to 'free'. Pay peanuts.......

Of course we don't want wasteful contracts and an extension of PPP/PFI without greater transparency and validation of the approach or contract. And of course it is ludicrous that £6.5m be spent on 80 people to provide such services to track expenses for IPSA. We bemoan regulation and red tape as either being too intrusive or not strong enough (its never suitably 'light touch', responsive, symapthetic or concilatory - maybe it is but we don't get good news stories!). Every time we try to cut it away we require (unconsciously it seems) that someone somewhere takes responsibility but they won't, don't or can't usually for fear of liability and litigation.

Into this fray comes the contrasting memes of political self-protection and manufactured doubt.

The former gives us knee jerk reaction to good and bad ‘news’ – the something must be done/it's risky/isn't it terrible/here is our solution type tirades are the stuff of the daily political media flow. Unfettered by the real world challenges of the impacts, social, economic, environmental, humanitarian, whatever, of imposing ‘solutions’ into whatever inevitably far more complex subject happens to newsworthy today, such pervasive flow is increasingly tarnished and seen as nowt more than a cynical ploy.

The latter foments (and liberally funds) controversy in areas where the broader public is ill-equipped to differentiate the implications of complex models, data sets and the requisite analysis. FUD – fear, uncertainty, doubt – generated billions for the tobacco industry over a 50 year plus period (oh yes and for governments as they kept increasing the tax take). Think tanks, research units, "independent" 'institutes' and 'respected' academics combine to create the type of uncertainty into which politicians, hacks and citizens can either exploit or fall for. Climate change being the most recent example.

This stuff (establishing a solid basis for decision making, as well as monitoring and evaluation of outcomes) is hard and pedalling narrow agendas is easier than ever. If it needs to be better understood it needs also to be made more interesting and accessible and the consequences, impacts and arguments credible.

Part 3 will try to look at that.....

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