Monday, 10 February 2014

UK politicians' slippery grasp of the truth

'Public Policy and the Past' has attacked UK politicians' use of numbers many, many times (not that such corrections ever seem to get us any closer to veracity, but still). The misuse of numbers is an epidemic these days, not only in public policy - but in partisan politics too. Remember all those people who said that Mitt Romney's polling position was being understimated by liberal journalists and statisticians? Yes, well, the Romney Presidency would be over a year old by now if they'd been right. Which they weren't.

The recent flooding of the Somerset levels (above) is another case in point. The Government has been taken to task - yet again - for some tricksy graphic representation of their flood defence spending which purported to show they laying out nearly as much money as on energy and transport. Look closer at the charts, though, and they're not - entirely reasonably in some ways, but (as ever) the governance problem is with the dissembling, not the actual policy.

This slippery grasp of the truth is bleeding into just about everything that Ministers say these days. Take the issue of dredging Somerset's rivers, the subject of a powerful and emotional campaign by stricken locals who believe that this would alleviate their suffering. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles put all the blame on the Environment Agency on Sunday's news programmes, saying that Ministers had been badly advised, and that they should have ordered more dredging, more quickly.

The problem with this argument? The fact that you can't find many experts to say anything good about an idea which would bring more water into a low-lying area, more quickly. And that the riverbanks and beds would adjust to very, very quickly anyway. Sure, dredging might be one solution in certain very confined areas, or key points: but it's not the solution to the Levels' problems, nor anything close to it.

We've proposed a 'three strikes and you're out' policy before - that Ministers would be given a green, amber and red card by the Statistics Authority. That alone might stop Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, forcing his officials to release highly misleading press notices. That wouldn't be of much help here, because the dredging question's a matter of opinion. At the moment, much more powerful and investigative Parliamentary Committees, a much fiercer response from independent bodies traduced by politicians (now just starting to emerge), and a stronger code of conduct for civil servants might help.

It's not much, but it's a start.

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