Thursday, 18 November 2010

A brief introduction, Part 1 : Evidence Based Policy Making

Politicians treating the symptoms of a problem rather than its cause is as old as Politics itself.  Some may hold the belief that the status quo has prevailed since man first emerged from the primordial forest. Perhaps it has.  Yet a light to lead the way out of the darkness did emerge as recently as thirteen years ago and it is from this moment that my analysis proceeds.

New Labour were elected by an overwhelming minority of the British population, some 26% of those over eighteen years of age cast a vote for Tony Blair et al.  Our antiquated electoral system translated this into a large parliamentary majority, granting a real opportunity for real change and reform across all aspects of government, from electoral reform through to reform of public services.  With this came the promise of Evidence Based Policy (EBP), a determination to delivery reforms that really worked, that could be demonstrated through material results.

This represented a significant change in British politics, the dawn of the post-ideological era.  New Labour occupied the centre ground, bridging the gap between the desire from the left for a fair society and the aspirational consumer driven reality borne out through successive Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s.  Whether this was actually achieved is for the moment, a moot point.

In this post-ideological era government was to be about the New Managerialism, Tony Blair the CEO of Britain Plc.  He would lead the organisational change going forward, adhere to quality assurance principals in monitoring the outcomes of the policies they embraced.  No more would a government simply pursue a particular course because their ideology demanded it; New Labour would use what worked.  Policy would be based upon hard facts, visible evidence.

This largely positivist approach to politics did not last particularly long.  EBP it turned out, revealed some unpalatable truths.  Prison doesn’t work, privatisation does not necessarily improve public services, prohibition of drugs is counterproductive, there are no weapons of mass destruction.  The punitive populism of Michael Howard was continued as the number of offences mushroomed, the prison population soared.  Voters wanted to see a government ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’.  In reality they had little appetite for the causes, but an insatiable hunger to see punishments handed out to criminals.  EBP was quietly abandoned, though not all went quietly.  The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) made it quite clear that there evidence on drug classification was both evidence based and ignored by the very government that appointed it.  

Though there were some positive results, many in the realm of education, proving that EBP has the potential to make some headway with some of the findings influencing policy on the shape of the national curriculum (this has since been shelved by the coalition).  The social mobility unit identified the issues of wealth inequality and lack of opportunity; the former was ignored the latter tackled in the Widening Participation agenda.  Some progress was made, some diseases at the heart of Britain were challenged, if not defeated. 

So where are we today?  The post-ideological era is over, though it can be easily argued that it never existed in the first place (More on this later).  David Cameron’s Conservative Party is, despite initial doubts, pursuing a deeply ideological path.  Its key facet is the redefinition of responsibility, the transfer of risk from the state to the individual.  It begins with students bearing the cost of their education, it logically concludes with individuals bearing the cost of everything else that the state provides (such as healthcare).  Thus far, EBP has had seemingly little influence on the Coalition government.

The result is that we return to an era in which policy and action is directed solely by ideological concerns with scant regard for any form of evidential base.  But it is this basis on evidence that helps to identify the causes of the problems that we face.  This isn’t to say that there is no place for ideology, one set of evidence can suggest a multitude of possible solutions, how does one decide?  Yet the decision to ignore evidence, whether qualitative or quantitive, is self defeating.  The flicker in the dark, the hope that our elected representatives might begin tackle the causes of society’s ills, rather than the symptoms, has been extinguished.

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