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My colleague @manosdaskalou’s recent blog Do we have to care prompted me to think about how data is used to inform government, its agencies and other organisations. This in turn led me back to the ideas of New Public Management (NPM), later to morph into what some authors called Administrative Management. For some of you that have read about NPM and its various iterations and for those of you that have lived through it, you will know that the success or failure of organisations was seen through a lens of objectives, targets and performance indicators or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). In the early 1980s and for a decade or so thereafter, Vision statements, Mission statements, objectives, targets, KPI’s and league tables, both formal and informal became the new lingua franca for public sector bodies, alongside terms such as ‘thinking outside the box’ or ‘blue sky thinking’. Added to this was the media frenzy when data was released showing how organisations were somehow failing.
Policing was a little late joining the party, predominately as many an author has suggested, for political reasons which had something to do with neutering the unions; considered a threat to right wing capitalist ideologies. But policing could not avoid the evidence provided by the data. In the late 1980s and beyond, crime was inexorably on the rise and significant increases in police funding didn’t seem to stem the tide. Any self-respecting criminologist will tell you that the link between crime and policing is tenuous at best. But when politicians decide that there is a link and the police state there definitely is, demonstrated by the misleading and at best naïve mantra, give us more resources and we will control crime, then it is little wonder that the police were made to fall in line with every other public sector body, adopting NPM as the nirvana.
Since crime is so vaguely linked to policing, it was little wonder that the police managed to fail to meet targets on almost every level. At one stage there were over 400 KPIs from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, let alone the rest imposed by government and the now defunct Audit Commission. This resulted in what was described as an audit explosion, a whole industry around collecting, manipulating and publishing data. Chief Constables were held to account for the poor performance and in some cases chief officers started to adopt styles of management akin to COMPSTAT, a tactic born in the New York police department, alongside the much vaunted ‘zero tolerance policing’ style. At first both were seen as progressive. Later, it became clear that COMPSTAT was just another way of bullying in the workplace and zero tolerance policing was totally out of kilter with the ethos of policing in England and Wales, but it certainly left an indelible mark.
As chief officers pushed the responsibility for meeting targets downwards through so called Performance and Development Reviews (PDRs), managers at all levels became somewhat creative with the crime figures and manipulating the rules around how crime is both recorded and detected. This working practice was pushed further down the line so that officers on the front line failed to record crime and became more interested in how to increase their own detection rates by choosing to pick what became known in academic circles as’ low hanging fruit’. Easy detections, usually associated with minor crime such as possession of cannabis, and inevitably to the detriment of young people and minority ethnic groups. How else do you produce what is required when you have so little impact on the real problem? Nobody, perhaps save for some enlightened academics, could see what the problem was. If you aren’t too sure let me spell it out, the police were never going to produce pleasing statistics because there was too much about the crime phenomenon that was outside of their control. The only way to do so was to cheat. To borrow a phrase from a recent Inquiry into policing, this was quite simply ‘institutional corruption’.
In the late 1990s the bubble began to burst to some extent. A series of inquiries and inspections showed that the police were manipulating data; queue another media frenzy. The National Crime Recording Standard came to fruition and with it another audit explosion. The auditing stopped and the manipulation increased, old habits die hard, so the auditing started again. In the meantime, the media and politicians and all those that mattered (at least that’s what they think) used crime data and criminal justice statistics as if they were somehow a spotlight on what was really happening. So, accurate when you want to show that the criminal justice system is failing but grossly inaccurate when you can show the data is being manipulated. For the media, they got their cake and were scoffing on it.
But it isn’t just about the data being accurate, it is also about it being politically acceptable at both the macro and micro level. The data at the macro level is very often somehow divorced from the micro. For example, in order for the police to record and carry out enquiries to detect a crime there needs to be sufficient resources to enable officers to attend a reported crime incident in a timely manner. In one police force, previous work around how many officers were required to respond to incidents in any given 24-hour period was carefully researched, triangulating various sources of data. This resulted in a formula that provided the optimum number of officers required, taking into account officers training, days off, sickness, briefings, paperwork and enquiries. It considered volumes and seriousness of incidents at various periods of time and the number of officers required for each incident. It also considered redundant time, that is time that officers are engaged in activities that are not directly related to attending incidents. For example, time to load up and get the patrol car ready for patrol, time to go to the toilet, time to get a drink, time to answer emails and a myriad of other necessary human activities. The end result was that the formula indicated that nearly double the number of officers were required than were available. It really couldn’t have come as any surprise to senior management as the force struggled to attend incidents in a timely fashion on a daily basis. The dilemma though was there was no funding for those additional officers, so the solution, change the formula and obscure and manipulate the data.
With data, it seems, comes power. It doesn’t matter how good the data is, all that matters is that it can be used pejoratively. Politicians can hold organisations to account through the use of data. Managers in organisations can hold their employees to account through the use of data. And those of us that are being held to account, are either told we are failing or made to feel like we are. I think a colleague of mine would call this ‘institutional violence’. How accurate the data is, or what it tells you, or more to the point doesn’t, is irrelevant, it is the power that is derived from the data that matters. The underlying issues and problems that have a significant contribution to the so called ‘poor performance’ are obscured by manipulation of data and facts. How else would managers hold you to account without that data? And whilst you may point to so many other factors that contribute to the data, it is after all just seen as an excuse. Such is the power of the data that if you are not performing badly, you still feel like you are.
The above account is predominantly about policing because that is my background. I was fortunate that I became far more informed about NPM and the unintended consequences of the performance culture and over reliance on data due to my academic endeavours in the latter part of my policing career. Academia it seemed to me, had seen through this nonsense and academics were writing about it. But it seems, somewhat disappointingly, that the very same managerialist ideals and practices pervade academia. You really would have thought they’d know better.
The fact that the digital readout on my car tells me that it is a due a service and that it needs to be looked at because something is very wrong does not provide comfort, just a nagging concern that it might break down soon, but how soon? On my way to work I left a message on my wife’s mobile phone, ‘it’s only me, just calling to say on my way to work’. She didn’t answer the phone, she’s out riding the horse, has something happened? Mid conversation with a work colleague, my phone’s just pinged, I must check it, it’s only my mate asking me out for a drink… ‘Nice one, next Thursday?’… What was that you were saying Susie? It’s not that the conversation is unimportant it’s just that I might miss something important on the phone. Checking emails, that email I sent an hour ago still hasn’t been responded to… back to Susie.
An hour later… must check my emails. What’s on Facebook, another notification has come through… must respond … ‘like’, there done. Better check I haven’t missed anything. Ebay… I’m still the highest bidder… should I increase my bid… just in case, Ebay says it would be a good idea. Google the item… what’s it worth… back to Ebay… Increase bid. Must check it again soon. Text from wife, all is good. Check emails… check phone … check Ebay… Check Facebook… all quiet, are they working..? Is it a network problem? Thank goodness I haven’t got a Twitter account to worry about. Now I have to write a blog entry… what to write about, will anyone read it let alone like it? Off to my seminar, I wonder if the laptop will work, will it connect to that new screen and stay connected, last week it kept disconnecting… will the technology work… busy, worry…
Before the days of connectivity and the great digital advancement, I didn’t worry about such things. But then I wouldn’t have phoned my wife on the way to work, in fact I wouldn’t have spoken to or heard from her for the whole day until I got home. I wouldn’t be worrying about the car because it would either be working or have broken down. Any correspondence I received would be in my in tray on a desk and would be dealt with and put into an out tray, the pending tray, or the bin. The pending tray was usually just waiting for the bin. Nothing to ping and rudely distract me from my conversation with a colleague. No need to worry about whether I was the highest bidder, I would be at the auction bidding, it would be happening there and then. I wouldn’t have been connected to a world of ‘friends’ producing meaningless drivel about where they were having their cup of coffee or the fact they liked some article in a paper about mass rape or murder. As for the laptop and the screen, paper never let me down.
We live in a digital age and everything is at your fingertips and it’s available right now. But what does that do? It may give you an edge in some respects but it also makes you edgy. I look around and see and hear about so many people suffering from anxiety, old and young alike. Perhaps the cause is not technology alone but it certainly doesn’t help. Maybe I worry too much, maybe I’m just becoming anxious about being anxious.
I recently took part in the Crime Survey for England and Wales and, in the absence of something more interesting to talk about, I thought I would share with you how exchanging my interviewer hat for an interviewee one gave me cause to consider the potential impact that I could have on the data and the validity of the data itself. My reflections start with the ‘incentive’ used to encourage participation, which took the shape of a book of 6 first class stamps accompanying the initial selection letter. This is not uncommon and on the surface, is a fair way of encouraging or saying thank you to participants. Let’s face it, who doesn’t like a freebie especially a useful one such as stamps which are now stupidly expensive. The problem comes when you consider the implications of the gesture and the extent to which this really is a ‘freebie’, for instance in accepting the stamps was I then morally obliged to participate? There was nothing in the letter to suggest that if you didn’t want to take part you needed to return the stamps, so in theory at least I was under no obligation to participate when the researcher knocked on the door but in practice refusing to take part while accepting the stamps, would have made me feel uncomfortable. While the question of whether a book of first class stamps costing £3.90 (Royal Mail, 2018) truly equates to 50 minutes of my time is a moot point, the practice of offering incentives to participate in research raises a moral and/or ethical question of whether or not participation remains uncoerced and voluntary.
My next reflection is slightly more complex because it relates to the interconnected issues associated with the nature and construction of the questions themselves. Take for example the multitude of questions relating to sexual offending and the way in which similar questions are asked with the alteration of just one or two words such as ‘in the last 12 months’ or ‘in your lifetime’. If you were to not read the questions carefully, or felt uncomfortable answering such questions in the presence of a stranger and thus rushed them, you could easily provide an inaccurate answer. Furthermore, asking individuals if they have ‘ever’ experiences sexual offending (all types) raises questions for me as a researcher regarding the socially constructed nature of the topic. While the law around sexual offending is black and white and thus you either have or haven’t experienced what is defined by law as a sexual offence, such questions fail to acknowledge the social aspect of this offence and the way in which our own understanding, or acceptance of certain behaviours has changed over time. For instance, as an 18 year old I may not have considered certain behaviours within a club environment to be sexual assault in the same way that I might do now. With maturity, education and life experience our perception of behaviour changes as do our acceptance levels of them. In a similar vein, society’s perception of such actions has changed over time, shifting from something that ‘just happens’ to something that is unacceptable and inappropriate. I’m not saying that the action itself was right back then and is now wrong, but that quantitative data collected hold little value without a greater understanding of the narrative surrounding it. Such questions are only ever going to demonstrate (quantitatively) that sexual offending is problematic, increasing, and widely experienced. If we are honest, we have always known this, so the publication of quantitative figures does little to further our understanding of the problem beyond being able to say ‘x number of people have experienced sexual offending in their lifetime’. Furthermore, the clumping together of all, or certain sexual offences muddies the water further and fails to acknowledge the varying degree of severity and impact of offences on individuals and groups within society.
Interconnected with this issue of question relevance, is the issue of question construction. A number of questions ask you to reflect upon issues in your ‘local area’, with local being defined as being within a 10-15 minute walk of your home, which for me raised some challenges. Firstly, as I live in a village it was relatively easy for me to know where I could walk to in 10/15 minutes and thus the boundary associated with my responses but could the same be said for someone who 1) doesn’t walk anywhere or 2) lives in an urban environment? This issue is made more complex when it comes to knowing what crimes are happening in the ‘local’ area, firstly because not everyone is an active community member (as I am) therefore making any response speculative unless they have themselves been a victim of crime – which is not what these questions are asking. Secondly, most people spend a considerable amount of time away from home because of work, so can we really provide useful information on crime happening in an area that we spend little time in? In short, while the number of responses to these questions may alleviate some of these issues the credibility, and in turn usefulness of this data is questionable.
I encountered similar problems when asked about the presence and effectiveness of the local police. While I occasionally see a PCSO I have no real experience or accurate knowledge of their ‘local’ efficiency or effectiveness, not because they are not doing a good job but because I work away from home during the day, austerity measures impact on police performance and thus police visibility, and I have no reason to be actively aware of them. Once again, these questions will rely on speculative responses or those based on experiences of victimisation which is not what the question is actually asking. All in all, it is highly unlikely that the police will come out favourable to such questions because they are not constructed to elicit a positive response and give no room for explanation of your answer.
In starting this discussion, I realise that there is so much more I could say, but as I’ve already exceeded my word limit I’ll leave it here and conclude by commenting that although I was initially pleased to be part of something that we as Criminologist use in our working lives, I was left questioning its true purpose and whether my knowledge of the field actually allowed me to be an impartial participant.