Losing our democracy: one step at a time

Michael J Reiss.

Born in the 1950s – and it’s difficult to imagine a better time to have been born in England – I belong to the generation that assumes democracy is here to stay. That belief was reinforced as I grew up by the end of fascism in Spain, the fall of the Berlin Wall and other world events towards the end of the twentieth century.

In the twenty-first century, things aren’t looking so rosy. Events in a number of countries across the globe are deeply worrying and I now find myself checking each day for the 2016 US Presidential election forecast. I would like to believe that the worst case scenario for the US couldn’t happen to England, where I still live. But I’m less sure. Perhaps I have been reading too many dystopian novels – I finished Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood this morning.

And then I read the BBC News announcement that ‘The Troubled Families Programme’, set up by David Cameron in 2012, and on which a total of over £1.3 bn has been spent, had made no significant impact.

Examination of the website of the organisation that produced the report – the highly reputable National Institute of Economic and Social Research – confirms the BBC Report. I quote:

“The key finding is that across a wide range of outcomes, covering the key objectives of the Troubled Families Programme – employment, benefit receipt, school attendance, safeguarding and child welfare – we were unable to find consistent evidence that the programme had any significant or systematic impact. The vast majority of impact estimates were statistically insignificant, with a very small number of positive or negative results. These results are consistent with those found by the separate and independent impact analysis using survey data, also published today, which also found no significant or systemic impact on outcomes related to employment, job seeking, school attendance, or anti-social behaviour.”

In itself, a disappointing conclusion – £1.3 bn is a lot of money and the families involved need effective help – but what is more troubling is the government reaction. Communities Minister Lord Bourne defended the programme, saying: “We believe this programme has transformed the lives of thousands of families. The councils and front-line staff who have put it into practice should be pleased with the work they have done.”

Innocuous as it sounds, that’s how one loses one’s democracy, one step at a time. I am glad I live in a country where such a report was not suppressed – though there have been claims that it was going to be, until a version was leaked. But I notice how one of the report’s authors, Jonathan Portes, Research Fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and previously Chief Economist at the Cabinet Office, has written in a personal blog that the history of The Troubled Families Programme has not only been a lesson in how to waste taxpayers’ money but also in how government can misuse statistics. He points out that “it was the government’s deliberate misrepresentation of the data and statistics that led to badly formulated targets, which in turn translated into a funding model that could have been designed to waste money.” Furthermore, in March 2015 Ministers decided to pre-empt the result of the evaluation and announced “More than 105,000 troubled families turned around saving taxpayers an estimated £1.2 billion” – a claim that we knew then to be unfounded in evidence and we know now almost certainly to be totally wrong.

So yes, I do worry about the state of democracy in Russia, and in Turkey and in many other countries. I just hope I don’t have to worry about it closer to home. Because we don’t need Orwell to tell us that threats to democracy don’t just come from men wielding baseball bats; they come from the misrepresentation of data, from the misuse of words and from threats to freedom of expression.



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Posted in Evidence-based policy, Social sciences and social policy
One comment on “Losing our democracy: one step at a time
  1. Brian says:

    We live in a time where data can be manipulated by anyone in a position of power and distorted beyond any semblance of reality. Data is not sacrosanct and at times Brexit campaign suggested that having data on your side was a negative – something Trump does as well.

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