Starting Again On Public Sector Statistics?

Talk on police or any performance management ‘statistics’ often turns to their gaming element. I live in a supposedly ‘beacon’ council area with departments like social services ‘achieving’ three-star status and ‘sector-leading’ housing association that ‘replaced’ the Council’s role in housing. In reality, I live on the edge of a dying town and doubt much round here is being done well.  I have seen improvements in the NHS care I need, but most of the rest doesn’t seem adequate and often misses the boat altogether.

The term ‘statistics’ is associated with science, but what we are getting is performance management and there is little science in them.  Even in academe, statistics are routinely fiddled because on one of its performance management criteria – the peer reviewed publication.  Simple stats are used when more complex forms are needed to establish genuine statistical differences.  Ben Goldacre suggests this is the case in half of papers in psychology.  I believe the situation is worse – as most papers with statistical method in them don’t need it at all – there is no point establishing statistical significance in the bleedin’ obvious.  Whist academics write this spurious drivel they ain’t doing what we need from them.

It’s difficult to justify the keeping of annual lists of the numbers of certain crimes if there isn’t much we can do to reduce, prevent and detect the crime people don’t want to experience.  Steve Bennett has done more than any academic I know to point out the gaming problems and we lack a forum to get the real problems expressed in a manner that could really count.  Indeed, we conflate critical evaluation methods with criticism of the police and other bodies.  This runs across the board in our society.  Modern research, based in experiment, has found that whilst we lay claim to welcome innovative ideas, we actually despise creativity, and those trying get the ad hominem in the neck.

The banking industry is a glaring example of the kind of false-accounting that is going on.  The ‘maths’ involved becomes a way of hiding problems instead of expressing them.  We clearly have a system that loses money hand over fist, yet lays claim to have expertise that must be rewarded for its performance.  I’m sorry, but you can play out of your skin and have to take losing pay.

I think we should stop performance management techniques as far as possible and ban the labeling of such as statistics.  Across industry they don’t keep people honest in the way a tackle count (now a complex of modalities) does in rugby league – the tackles become virtual and derivitised to the point we can’t be sure any were ever made.  It’s a bit like telling your coach you didn’t make any in the game, but the hundred on your pillow or in dreams should count – or including toe-nail clipping as an operation.

It is important to know that burglaries are falling, but it’s much more important to establish why this is the case – what any drop or rise is correlated with.  Beyond this, burglary is poorly defined in terms of what matters to me and you, as many other things affect our wealth.  I’m reasonably insured against it and it isn’t a major threat to my wealth and well-being.  The banksters have been a much greater threat to our wealth and democracy. Having to live near druggie, noisy, recidivist scum affects the quality of life of those it’s forced on much more seriously than burglary threat.

Good statistics would be expressed in spreadsheets that anyone could use in promoting public debate.  This is rare.  One thought that crosses my mind is whether the reductions in certain major categories of crime across the West mean anything much beyond us being able to do ‘something’ through focus on these problems.  One problem is that we have no control to measure against, but the lack of a convenient world that otherwise stands still outside our interventions is unavoidable.

One can imagine experiments we could do on typical petty crime.  We could give Bill the burglar £50K a year and send him to university, or even do this with ten evil poor families on one estate and compare them with similar areas with no intervention – I take it a sour taste is arising in you too.  This sounds ludicrous until one realises we ‘credibly’ spend much more in family rehabilitation schemes – then one wonders on the incredulity of what we are actually doing.  What I mean by this type of experiment is that we should be thinking through what links we should be looking for and using research methods we can take to approximate to control ideas.  This is an area of public functional illiteracy.

What we need is not complex mathematical schemes – these are usually the problem.  I can set fairly easy financial problems undergraduates mostly can’t do in class, yet they all appear to be able to do if I issue an out of class assignment – they copy and cheat in the main.  In academic quality assessments I’ve seen departments go from rubbish to excellent just by getting in a performance manager prepared to do the paperwork needed.  Something beyond this kind of bureaucratic lunacy is needed – and indeed the lunacy needs to go.  The QAA collapsed academic standards, though the industry could not see it needed to change.

We need some thinking from the ground up.  No manufacturer is interested in performance statistics that don’t relate to costs, sales and quality.  Trying to transfer techniques from even one related industry sector to another can be difficult and check-list approaches from a generic source usually fail.  We can be smarter than this and we don’t need maths, covariants or Gaussian copulas.  We need something we can’t cheat and we think is useful and fair.  Instead, we are beholden to loads of unnecessary dross that promotes glib argument and political manipulation.  To a scientist, it’s like being stuck having to skew results to suit a dud political theory like a geneticist working for Stalin.

Much as we want thieving druggies to ‘shape up’, we need to understand the effects of an economic system we can’t use to provide enough coppers and other resources like jobs they can do to change the environment around them and the one they grow in.  What difference a couple of trillion wasted on banksters we don’t know, precisely because we keep ourselves ‘free’ of realistic statistics.  Where are the comparisons between what it’s like to live and crime in Sweden, Norway and Britain?  Where is any straightforward statement on crime and immigration?  My burglary was paid for by insurance, but not the much worse financial and quality of life loss of having scum dumped next door.  I lost more in loan insurance ‘legally’ extracted by the bank than in the burglary.  In we had real statistics we’d know more about what crime is and what to do about it.

Every scheme of data recording I’ve seen has been a pain in the arse to use.  In police recording cases could be entered into databases that would print off charge sheets, self-duplicate for secure storage and be interrogation friendly.  The work in data entry should not be an additional burden.  Yet in our incompetence it always is.  Last time I was involved (5 years ago), detectives still had to lug cardboard boxes full of original statements to court, when these were digitised.  We should not try any substantial changes before addressing ‘quill and ink’ attitudes.

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