The Cabinet Office has come up with a crazy plan to ban academics like me from talking to politicians and civil servants. In this piece I explain why that is an almost surreally stupid idea. I also describe how I hustle, in Whitehall, to try and get government policy changed on open data, scientific transparency, and evidence based policy. Readers with a weaker constitution should be forewarned that this piece contains lurid descriptions of very positive experiences I have had with Oliver Letwin, and other popular right-wing hate figures. There is no apology for that, in the name of pragmatism and democracy: we should train academics to talk to ministers, and encourage them to do it.
Here’s a 5 minute film I did on Newsnight last week, about how politics needs better data. Specifically, it’s about how politicians misuse statistics, how we can stop them, and how we can generate better evidence on what works, and what fails.
If you’re interested in more on this topic, well… there are some good examples of dodgy government stats on this site, and in the chapter on Dodgy Government Statistics in my latest book. For more about randomised trials of government policy, here’s a Radio 4 documentary I did on them, here’s a Cabinet Office paper I co-authored on them, and they crop up in this that I did for the Department of Education. If that’s not enough then I’ll write some more.
I was asked by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education) and the Department for Education to look at how to improve the use of evidence in schools. I think there are huge, positive opportunities for teachers here, that go way beyond just doing a few more trials: there is a need for a coherent “information architecture” that supports evidence based practice. I was asked to write something that explains what this would look like, specifically for teachers. Pasted below is the briefing note from DfE press office, and then the text of what I wrote for them, which came out this week. You can also download a PDF from the DfE website here. Read the rest of this entry »
Here’s a documentary I made for BBC Radio 4 (with producer Rami Tzabar) about evidence based social policy, and why we should do more randomised trials in government. It’s good fun, 40 minutes, with contributions from Dean Karlan (who wrote this book and is behind all these excellent trials on reducing poverty), Prof Sheila Bird, Jonathan Portes from NIESR (his excellent blog here), the man they call GOD, and many more.
If you’re interested in reading more evidence based policy, I highly recommend this Cabinet Office paper that I co-authored a few months ago, downloadable for free online. As explained here, it’s brief, and very much designed to be the Ladybird Book of RCTs in Government. If you want more on the uses for randomised trials in criminal justice, I wrote this in the British Medical Journal with Sheila Bird and John Strang in 2011 (sorry it’s not open access, I’ll try to fix that soon). More to come on this topic soon. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve spent a lot of time arguing that government should be more evidence based, and that wherever possible, we should do randomised trials to find out which policy intervention works best. We often have no idea whether the things we do in government actually work or not, and achieve their stated goals. This is a disaster.
So, with my grown up hat on, here’s a Cabinet Office paper I co-wrote with some government people on exactly this topic. We explain why randomised trials of policy are so powerful; we explain exactly how to do them; and we explain how to identify a meaningful policy question that can be explored cheaply in a good quality trial. Read the rest of this entry »
I forgot to post this column up last year. It’s a fun one: the Department for Communities and Local Government have produced a truly farcical piece of evidence, and promoted it very hard, claiming it as good stats. I noticed the column was missing today, because Private Eye have published on the same report in their current issue, finding emails that have gone missing through FOI applications, and other nonsense. That part is all neatly summarised online in the Local Government Chronicle here.
Is this the worst government statistic ever created?
Politicians are ignorant about trials, and they’re weird about evidence. It doesn’t need to be this way. In international development work, resources are tight, and people know that good intentions aren’t enough: in fact, good intentions can sometimes do harm. We need to know what works.
Ben Goldacre, Saturday 7 November 2009, The Guardian
Obviously it’s pleasing to see, in the storm of commentary over Professor Nutt’s sacking, that everyone outside of politics now recognises the importance of scientific evidence in devising laws. But a strange reasoning twitch has appeared, in the arguments of politicians and right wing commentators. Science can tell us about the molecules, they say, about their effect on the body, and the risks. But policy is a separate domain: a matter for judgement calls on social and ethical issues. Only politicians, they say, can determine the correct way to send out a clear message to the public. It is not a matter for science.
This week at a debate in the Royal Institute I was told off by the science minister for not praising good science reporting, because journalists – famously kind to their targets – are sensitive to criticism. So before we dismantle this Home Office report on drugs policy, can I just say I’m sure they’ve probably produced some other perfectly acceptable reports, and I shouldn’t like any brittle souls in government to be dispirited by the criticisms that will now follow.
The Blueprint programme is an intensive schools intervention to reduce problematic drug use, and a lengthy research project to see if it works – costing at least £6m – finished some years ago. We have been waiting for the results ever since, and this quote from Vernon Coaker, then Minister for Drugs & Crime Reduction, explains what we have been waiting for: “The Blueprint drugs education programme is designed to evaluate the effectiveness of a multi-component approach to school-based drug education… The programme is currently being evaluated to determine its impact on all drug use.”