Wednesday 30 July 2014

Who selects the evidence?

It has become something of a mantra for politicians over recent years that decisions should be “evidence-based”.  It all sounds fine and dandy, with its unstated implication of a rational and logical process leading to an inevitable conclusion.  But reality is rather different.
One of the problems with it is that “evidence” comes in many different flavours.  Whilst some is in the form of hard facts and figures, some is mere opinion.  Expert opinion in some cases admittedly, but still opinion.  And even the hard evidence can sometimes be interpreted in more than one way.  Interpretation is key; and interpretation is largely a subjective rather than an objective process which involves not only weighting the different elements but can also include deciding which evidence to collect in the first place.
Two recent examples of evidence collecting underline the problems.
The first is this report (Peter Black drew attention to the story a week or two ago).  The UK government commissioned a report into the effects of immigration.  Unfortunately for them, the “evidence” didn’t support their viewpoint, so they had it rewritten.
The second was the decision to build the M4 black route.  The Minister certainly had plenty of “evidence” from consultation exercises to take a decision, but some might feel that the decision simply flies in the face of much of the evidence.  Certainly the Minister has chosen to put the emphasis on a different place than I would have done in deciding how to evaluate that evidence.
Quite apart from the practical difficulties of following a truly “evidence-based” approach, there is a question of principle which concerns me more.  Do we really want key policy decisions to be taken by people who have no opinion of their own until the civil servants have collected, collated and evaluated the evidence and then told the minister what his or her opinion is?  What scope does that leave for political differentiation?  After all, the civil servants would give the same advice to any minister regardless of party.
I have heard ministers in the past saying, effectively, that they don’t and can’t have an opinion on an issue until they’ve heard all the evidence, and even arguing that their role is quasi- judicial.  Whilst in a small number of cases that is true, on the whole I prefer to have politicians who are willing to drive things in a clear direction and to say so in advance, rather than ministers who see the job as more a case of sitting in judgement on alternative policies.  I want to be able to choose which policies are followed, not simply which group of people are going to pretend to be impartial judges.


Anonymous said...

The real problem here isn't the matter of 'evidence' or otherwise. It's the fact that politicians have way too public money to spend. And to spend on things that should, by and large, be in the preserve of the private sector.

Reduce taxation to ensure there is no 'pot' of public money for anything other than matters relating to Home Office, Foreign Office and Public Health.

Yes, the tide is turning. But it is a slow turn. The screws are tightening on every taxpayer. Soon there will be an outcry. Enough is enough! It's time for efficient government!

John Dixon said...

I think that I can agree with just about none of that.

Anonymous said...

But that is because you have more fun spending other people's money rather than just your own.

It's a power trip ..... but for you only!

John Dixon said...

Well, no actually.

In the first place, I'm not in a position to spend any money belonging to other people, and don't ever expect to be in such a position, so it's not something I'm in a position to enjoy now or in the future.

And in the second place, telling me that you know better than I do what my motivation is is, shall we say, a little presumptuous at best.