Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Whatever happened to evidence-based policy?


The idea of 'evidence-based policy' was one of the most apparently unobjectionable elements of New Labour's time in office. Now it was often a completely disingenuous cover for what the Blair administration in particular wanted to do anyway. But there was at least a nod to looking before you leaped; to testing; to some pilot projects. It was a bit like those much-vaunted 'one stop shops' of welfare lore: honoured perhaps more in the breach than the observance, but a virtuous aim, and something that at least held back Whitehall and Westminster's worst instincts.

But these days even that mask has been thrown aside, and 'evidence-based policy' abandoned in favour of some mid-level policy disasters that have failed even in their own terms.

Let's have a look at just two such debacles, shall we?

The badger cull. Now if you wanted to trap and kill badgers to stop the spread of bovine TB, what would you want to know? Yes, that's right, you'd ask the following: first: do badgers actually assist the spread of the disease? Secondly, would killing them stop the little black-and-white stripeyheads trundling around the country? And, third and last, what is the best and most humane way of killing them? Unfortunately, as we've noted before, the present administration did none of these things. It launched out on a couple of pilot projects in the West Country designed only to look at the humane killing question, ignoring much veterinary evidence that this would be an expensive and unnecessary waste of time. When they failed to kill anything like the number of badgers that they thought they might, the Government then abruptly announced that it wouldn't go any further with the programme - without any apology at all about all those wild animals that had been needlessly slaughtered.

Personal Independence Payments. Now if you feel angry about that one (and lots of animal-loving Britons probably will), the pain and heartache caused by the Department of Work and Pension's serial blundering will probably cause you something closer to rage. Look away now if you're of a nervous disposition. Right this minute, as you're reading this, hundreds of thousands of people are either waiting for decisions about how, when and why they'll be moved over from Disability Living Allowance to the new 'system', or are wondering how on earth they're going to cope when their long-standing health difficulties have just been completely ignored or denied by disaster-prone assessement firm Atos. MPs have just called the programme a 'fiasco', and you should ask yourself this: if you had a terminal illness, and you were in a great deal of pain, how would you feel about being told that you had to wait a month for payment? Yes, you'd feel that your society - your friends and neighbours - had just delivered you a great big smack in the face. Welcome to the United Kingdom.

By the way, we're not including Universal Credit, the Big McGuffin of all catastophes that is presently limping towards an early, inglorious death. To be honest, it's now so far gone that there's no point even criticising it. It's basically now attained mythical status. It doesn't exist, despite Iain Duncan Smith's continual assertions that it does. As soon as he leaves his post in May (whoever wins the General Election) it will quietly be forgotten about - after billions of your money has been frittered away on absolutely nothing.

So what do these depressing policy car crashes have in common? They were rushed through in the first phases of the 'breakneck coalition', partly to show that a government led by two parties and not one could work really quickly and purposively. And they were just too big to steer properly. Ministers, and perhaps even officials, never thought to include really large-scale trials in the rollout of these 'policies' (for want of a better word). And they refused to pull out of their plans when they were patently going badly awry.

All because we turned our back on what incision, evidence, analysis, detail, differentiation and good old-fashioned common sense told us in the first place.

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