Slowly, local government in the UK
has been moving towards 'accountability' and 'consultation'. Arguably, it is all a sham
and a waste of paper. E-government is also full of promises, most of them probably false.
This letter is from the Sidmouth Herald of 30 January 1999.
So much for genuine accountability!
SIR - For how much longer must we finance the
stream of supposedly 'consultative' glossy leaflets and booklets produced by East Devon
District Council and Devon County Council? The function of government at any level is to
govern. This requires that those in power have both ability and knowledge.
I have just read a glossy booklet entitled "Crime and Disorder in East Devon".
Lavishly produced by EDDC with help from the police and DCC it purports "to aim to
engage all members of the East Devon community" in "developing a three year
Crime Reduction and Disorder Strategy". It is yet another public consultation
We need to be on our guard. There is large type and pretty pictures, as if few words on a
page and multicoloured artwork can help to disguise lack of content and competence. Count
the buzz words: "impacts on community safety, an ongoing process for the foreseeable
future (read: jobs for the boys and girls), consultation, audit", and the inevitable
and all-telling lie: "the strategy is as much yours as the authorities".
Has there ever been a time when cynicism and distrust towards MPs and other 'leaders' has
been accompanied by so many false accolades to accountability? We pay for all this
psycho-babble telling us how much our views are earnestly sought and truly genuinely
valued. We have Ombudsmen, Citizens Charters and Charter Marks, and yet pretence,
insincerity and weasel words have spread to engulf every tier of government.
Allow me therefore to examine from a detached scientific standpoint, the reality of
questioning EDDC and some of their elementary mistakes in data analysis. Faced with
someone who knows what is talking about, they clam up so tight it is impossible to extract
more than a postcard in reply to a 20 point letter. Yet this is entirely in line with
performance standards! EDDC recently took out full page adverts in local papers
conveniently just before Christmas when no-one might read it.
Under the headline "but how did we perform for you?" they give a range of
statistics including that their target for answering letters is five days or an
acknowledgement card to be sent within three days. In reality therefore, any letter that
may not stretch their abilities too far may get answered within 5 days. Any that are in
the least demanding may never be answered! I delivered one on 22 Oct. A postcard from EDDC
dated 27 Oct promised "a detailed reply will follow shortly". Many reminders
later I am still waiting and the Ombudsman's Office tell me there is little they can do
because EDDC can set whatever 'performance targets' they like. So much for genuine
The Crime and Disorder booklet seeks comments by February 1, now extended to February 7.
It runs to 20 glossy full colour pages. The information content is virtually zero and
because the document has a useful life of two weeks, expensive paper and artwork are
Page 3 is a map and of no value in any of the arguments. Page 4 contains the only digested
statistics in the whole document. It is claimed that East Devon is one of the safest
places to live in the country. So it should be, it has one of the highest proportions of
respectable retired people. Claiming credit for a low crime rate here would be akin to
claiming credit for the sea washing on the shore. Only CHANGES in crime rate are
significant, as are comparisons between different areas on a 'per head' or 'per household'
Page 4 also contains a simple guide to the costs of crime. The statistics are so
incomplete as to be almost meaningless - but consider that East Devon has the second
highest cost of burglary per head of all the listed areas. Assessment on a per dwelling
basis might have been more sensible, to remove bias owing to different areas having
different ratios of home occupancy. But it is in reading all the subsequent pages that we
must contain our laughter. The real gems are pages 7 to 18.
Instead of following Home Office guidelines to present data normalised to 100 or 1000
population (car theft per 1000 population etc) the data is all presented as simple numbers
of incidents. I asked the police for a copy of the guidelines. "Only available on the
Internet, Sir". I protested that the majority of residents would not find this
useful. They did confirm the printed guidance ran to hundreds of pages. Guess who pays for
this, and for so-called research officers at EDDC. Why is data only provided on the small
number of new houses to be built in each area, and none on the existing numbers? The words
"Key problems are vandalism, theft from vehicles and antisocial behaviour" are
repeated 17 times within 10 pages.
This is known as padding. Comments given on each town and area are drawn at random and
could be swapped around with no loss of accuracy: their information content for
comparative purposes is therefore zero.
I could continue in this vein but why bother? Councils will continue to produce glossy
rubbish and refuse to answer legitimate questions until they are brought properly under
control. The obvious problems of policing East Devon could be written down on one side of
a piece of paper.
It is the central bureaucracy that still requires attention, including that police
officers should be doing a proper job of policing and scientists (even awkward ones)
should be employed on an ad-hoc basis to produce competent analysis when and if it is
required to support strategy development.
DR STEPHEN J WOZNIAK
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