Issue 7: Nov 2013

EDITORIAL: POLICY MAKING AND DATA. COUNT ME IN! ..BUT CAN YOU REALLY COUNT?

By Professor Richard Kerley

In any discussion about public policy, whether UK wide or here in Scotland, we have sometimes placed a rather complacent reliance on the robust values of our data, whether economic, demographic or programme related.

So we look askance at countries such as Lebanon, where there has not been a census for over 80 years. In France we might ask how a government can allow the notion of "republican citizenship" to prevent the collection of basic data about the social circumstances of people from different national and ethnic antecedents ...because they are all simply French citizens.

Yet how good is our data here? How robust are those figures that we rely upon for everything from grant distribution to councils, to planning school building programmes, to determining whether part of the country needs more spend put into health than other parts of the country do? 

Over and above that of course, the data streams that are thrown like javelins by both sides of the referendum argument are increasingly viewed as suspect – whichever side is at it. 

The Scottish government recently published its assessment of the pension prospects for an independent Scotland: “…we might hold the pension age steady longer than the Westminster government has promised …we might increase the basic state pension more; we might vary pension ages according to health variations …and we can afford to do that!”  At one recent MacKay Hannah conference one speaker referred to this as ‘fiddling the figures‘ and two respected academics have shown how the figures have been used in ways that is completely against conventional usage.

In recent press reports various aspects of the "No" campaign have been criticised for some of the more absurd claims made by the Chancellor such as "investment in Scotland will be damaged". It hasn’t been. All the political parties involved in the 'No' campaign have been condemned by various reasonable commentators for their misuse of data.

Maybe that’s to be expected in a heated campaign. What is more worrying for us – or should be – is the quality and timeliness of various outputs from official data sources. There are regular, repetitive complaints about the extent to which economic data from within Scotland is invariably later than comparable UK data. Census figures for Scotland were in the main published several months later than comparable data for England & Wales – with no good reason ever given and that at a time when Community Planning Partners were required to be completing Single Outcome Agreements in which census data is a central feature.

In the past month or so I have listened to educational researchers and social researchers complain of the quality and extent of official data available in Scotland.  “Scotland has some of the best health service data in the world” as is claimed by the Health Services Information Services Division (incidentally, with no apparent sense of deliberate irony). It is however, as the Parliamentary Health Committee pointed out last year, very hard to find out how well our health service performs and the readily available financial data about health services in Scotland is poorer than in the three NHS systems in the UK.

This issue has a lighter side. A recent report in the press shows that UK wide the responsible authorities can’t even agree on a common measurement of fitness standards for fire-fighters. What was reported is that in what was Strathclyde 67% of fire-fighters failed to meet fitness standards, while in Surrey less than 1% fail. Both figures are implausible to a degree that makes one despair of the value of some expensively collected official data.

Only counting things is a poor course to follow in developing public policy. We then tend to value only what we can count. But failing to accurately count social features that governments should count accurately is a signal of a poor government and doesn’t help in any public debate. 

By Professor Richard Kerley

Issue 7: Nov 2013

Issue 7: Nov 2013

HEALTH, WELL BEING AND AGEING: SCOTLAND 2020

Re-energising the move towards integrated care

Scotland's move to integrated care can learn from elsewhere by focussing on two key differentiators between successful partnerships and those paying lip service to integrated working: Shared outcomes and common language is one, the other is demonstrating mutual investments and mutual benefits.

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