Burning the evidence

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Openness is at the heart of this Government’s approach" says Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, in the Foreword to Making Open Data Real: A Public Consultation [external website].

As a researcher, my heart leaps when I read this kind of statement. Woohoo! Show me the data! I cry. I fantasise about robust data and research leading to enlightened policymaking.  Let us see the figures which will make the case for and measure the results of pivotal Government agendas like Big Society and public services reform.

But increasingly it looks like the reality behind the Government’s open data policy is quite different from the rhetoric. Take the black box out of the pretty wrapping paper and open it up, and instead of lovely spreadsheets full of informative data we find.......only moths and myths.

“We are seeing a withdrawal of information-gathering across a range of sectors” says Roberta Blackman-Woods, shadow civil society minister, in Third Sector [external website].

Take the Citizenship Survey [external website] which, since 2001, has measured a wide range of social issues, including race equality, faith, feelings about community, volunteering and participation. The perfect vehicle for measuring civic participation in Big Society both historically and for new policies currently being introduced – you’d think. But this has now been scrapped as it is deemed too 'complex and expensive'.  

We are told that a ‘Measuring Big Society’ research team, comprising Portsmouth and Liverpool Universities, plus the Centre for Research on Environment, Society and Health (CRESH) are creating a ‘blueprint’ for measuring Big Society (although not actually creating a new measure). However this will not be up and running until at least 2012, meaning there will be little or no baseline level to measure any effects against. Why not continue to fund the citizenship survey instead – at least in the interim?

Then there is The National Survey of Charities and Social Enterprises (NSCSE, formerly the NSTSO) – believed to be the largest survey of charities ever conducted in its two waves in 2008 and 2010. It had a particular emphasis on examining the relationship between charities and local authorities; in particular the quality of service provision relationships – another stalwart of the Big Society agenda. This survey is far from perfect – for one thing it made no attempt to involve unregistered groups – but it was arguably better than nothing. Still, the Office of Civil Society (OCS) is currently considering whether to also scrap this potential barometer of Big Society.

In the meantime, much is being made of Government policy to force local authorities and departments to publish details of their spending, with Communities Minister Eric Pickles hailing the ‘citizen armchair auditors’ whom he expects to hold government to account with this information. 

However, to date this has not lived up to its promise – mainly because it is accounting information which has not been collected with a public audience in mind, and so it is very difficult to analyse.  Dumping data into the public domain is pointless unless it is organised in a consistent and accessible way that can be interpreted and used. Again, the UK government ceased publishing holistic annual estimates of its spending on the voluntary sector in 2006, putting an end to an informative trail of data stretching back to 1979, in another cost-cutting exercise.  

The irony is that all of this is against the backdrop of the Government openly admitting the difficulty of measuring the success of their Big Society policies. Francis Maude himself recently commented in the Guardian [external website] that the Cabinet has ‘wracked their brains’ to come up with suitable measures for Big Society. He said, “We thought about measuring the number of community groups launched or public service mutuals set up, but mostly it's about the stories, the anecdotes about what people are doing."

I actually agree, in part, and charities which receive government money should definitely keep that quote to hand, the next time their funder asks for externally-verified statistical evidence of need/impact, progress against Key Performance Indicator (KPIs), metrics of x,y,z etc.  

So the evidence is getting burned, but why?  What’s the underlying motivation? Ministers will say it’s about efficiency savings and rooting out Labour’s target culture, but the cynic in me says that they actually don’t want evidence which might turn out to be inconvenient or damaging.  They don’t want to measure their success because then they can be called to account when things fail and public money is, again, wasted. In this Government, ideology drives policy more than evidence.

Perhaps I have high expectations – in reality government is a messy business, rather like juggling plates whilst somebody is constantly adding or taking plates randomly. But in this case, I fear that even if my cynical side is proved wrong, Government may wind up eventually having to reinvent the very same wheels it has already chucked on the bonfire, leaving agendas such as Big Society if not rudderless then at least wheelless.

This post was originally published by DSC e-news in 2011.