Monday, 26 December 2016

Have we had enough of experts?

For me one of the most striking comments of this turbulent year was that by Michael Gove, 'The people of this country have had enough of experts.' Given the referendum outcome, and the election of President Trump, he was clearly on to something. We have entered an era of 'post factual' or 'post truth' politics.

New Labour formally celebrated the arrival of evidence-based policy-making in a white paper. A whole academic cottage industry grew up around this concept, including a specialised journal.

I always had a few reservations about this rather technocratic concept. It seemed to me that it did not allow much room for values, beliefs and, yes, ideology, which in my view are at the core of democratic politics.

To take an example from my research, how should one deploy fire service assets (stations, appliances)? At one time in the UK. we prioritised commercial and heritage property. Thus, I found in the National Archives elaborate plans for deploying appliances as quickly as possible to the various properties of the Duke of Devonshire. If one prioritised saving lives, resources would be used differently.

Evidence-based policy-making can also be difficult when the evidence is incomplete and contested and there is disagreement on the lessons to be drawn from it. Bovine Tb, one of the most intractable policy problems I have ever encountered, is the classic example from my work.

Having said that, some evidence is better than no evidence at all. However, it is no match for a resonating emotional narrative that may be completely false, e.g., the 'birther' accusations made against President Obama by Trump among others.

In its spoof Christmas adverts Private Eye asks, 'Need a plumber, but had enough of experts?' The answer is to be found in the Gove yellow pages that will bring a guaranteed non-expert to your door, scratching their head and saying 'I dunno, mate, sorry no idea.'

Monday, 19 December 2016

Preparing for Brexit

A very interesting report from the Institute for Government on how government is prepared, or rather not prepared, for Brexit: Preparation

The basic message is that all the cutbacks in staff, not least in Defra, have left government unable to cope with its normal tasks, as well as the complex challenges posed by Brexit.