Posted by laura on

If I could call a referendum…

The lecture series shared by the RSA and the LSE are two of my favourite sources of input. That these two institutions share, for free, the thinking of some of the brightest minds in the world should be lauded, and if you don’t take advantage of them already, I’d highly recommend it.

Listening to one such lecture, on crime and why people commit it, I had a thought.

We are all surrounded right now by noise from both sides of the EU debate. It tends to be more heat than light, emotion than fact. Even the ‘facts’ are somewhat suspect, cherry-picked and skewed by each side in a clumsy attempt to sway the floating voter.

The debate is highly ideological because no-one really knows what would happen were we to leave. My strong suspicion* is that after a couple of decades we would end up in largely the same place either way. It’s just that one route would be rather more painful than the other.

The point is that there is sufficient uncertainty about the result that people can, and do, make impassioned and sometimes compelling arguments on both sides. And facts alone cannot settle who is right.

This is not the case in all areas of policy. Sometimes we know what works. What approach will help us to achieve the most desirable outcome.

I’m not talking about ‘big P’ politics here: left and right, high tax or low tax, public services or market economy. Rather I am concerned with the ‘small p’ political decisions. In many ways, the ones that really matter to people’s lives. More operational decisions about how we handle issues like crime reduction and public health improvement.

Here there are often tested and proven strategies. Science offers us answers.

Unfortunately these answers conflict with people’s instinct and ideology. For example, better sex and relationship education doesn’t increase sexual activity in young people, but it does reduce risky behaviour leading to pregnancy and STDs.

Likewise with crime. As Tom Gash points out in his talk, and book, we know that offenders given a role with status on leaving prison are much less likely to re-offend. But instead our conversation is always about harsher sentencing.

Now I don’t think many people would disagree that cutting the number of unplanned teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is a good thing. No-one wants to increase their chances of being a victim of crime. Nor do they want to bare the enormous cost of the people we keep in jail (around £65,000 to first imprison someone and then around £40,000 per prisoner, per year).

And yet, we are not doing the things we know would deliver these universally desirable outcomes. Because they are counter-intuitive, or go against our deeply held — if ill-informed — beliefs.

So here’s my referendum question for the public. One I think would improve all our lives much more dramatically than being in or out of the EU:

“Given a prevailing weight of scientific evidence, subject to rigorous standards of validation, should the government implement policies that can be shown to improve public health or reduce crime and its impacts?”

Sounds daft when you put it like that, doesn’t it? Of course they should.

It’s far from a perfect question. You could probably add an ethical oversight dimension in there. That’s not without risk, but it’s also not beyond governments to select the science that suits them to rather unpleasant effect.

If you were brave and confident, you could broaden the scope. But imagine if, just within the confines of public health and crime, the government was effectively obliged to follow proven approaches rather than engaging in ideological banter with its opposition.

Wouldn’t that be a better world?

*Much as I’d love to, I can’t afford the time to do a deep dive on this right now unless someone asks/pays me to do so. What the whole issue does show is that organisations need a great level of agility and the ability to run their own foresight processes in order to deal with so much uncertainty.

Share this article ...

Tom Cheesewright