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4 April 2006Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Too much public information
The debate about public services is swamped by big but vacuous reports.

by Ciaran Guilfoyle

In recent years the public information industry has boomed. Some organisations provide information to people about public services, and other organisations provide demographic information to government.

Far from empowering the public and allowing informed decision-making, this clogs up a space that should be occupied by politics. The information generated in the public's name is not only cumbersome (in the form of numerous downloadable documents on the internet) but thoroughly unimaginative (doing nothing to inspire any thinking about how public services might be developed).

As an example, consider Ofsted - the UK Office for Standards in Education. I have always been aware that teachers view Ofsted inspections as a stressful and often depressing time, when they are required to demonstrate the clarity of their lesson plans and the achievements of their pupils. However, until recently I assumed that Ofsted reports provide a vital source of information for parents. Indeed, there is a page on Ofsted's website headed 'Why Ofsted inspection reports are essential for parents'. But having now been through the process of choosing a primary school for my son, I take a different view.

Prior to visiting the three local primary schools which my son could possibly attend, I downloaded three 'essential' reports (amounting to some 113 pages) from the Ofsted website. After devoting a couple of evenings to ploughing through these I should have been armed with the necessary information to ask the most pertinent of questions of the schools' headteachers. But the information was abstract, and much of it related to management styles. Where it concerned teaching it related more to style than substance, and where it concerned learning it focused on the performance of the average pupil. I couldn't see how it would affect my son.

According to the report on the first school, improvements could be made in a number of areas. One of these concerned how the governing body 'monitors the effectiveness of its major spending decisions in relation to their impact on standards'. But how would this affect my son's learning? Would it mean the governing body at some point in the future casually procuring a new computer or blithely building a new classroom? If so, would this really be a problem?

The remainder of the report concerned the quality of learning and teaching, but statements like 'The quality of teaching was satisfactory or better in 94 per cent of the lessons observed' and 'The teaching of numeracy is satisfactory across the school' left a blank space in my mind where a question ought to have been. I wanted to know whether my son would like his teachers, enjoy lessons, play competitive sports, and so on. I was fairly certain that my son would never arrive home one day and describe his teachers as 'satisfactory across the school'.

In the end, my wife and I made a decision based on the first school visit - we liked the playing fields, and the toilets were clean. We supplemented this with the important fact that our son's friend from nursery would also be going there. So our son will be attending the school whose governing body does not adequately monitor the effectiveness of its major spending decisions in relation to their impact on standards. Job done.

I admit that these criteria were unsophisticated compared to those used by the Ofsted inspectors, but at least they were ours. This is not to say that over time these criteria will not change - indeed, I would like them to be tackled by someone who knows better. But this will not happen via the Ofsted inspection report, because the Ofsted inspector - for all his knowledge of management styles and teaching styles and of general satisfaction levels - has no knowledge of my concerns.

This deficiency is covered over by Ofsted's generously providing parents with 'as much information as possible'. Its website claims that this is what parents want, but I don't think they do. Parents only really want enough information to form a judgement. Good parenting requires that decisions are made when the time is right, not when all relevant information has been accumulated, for that way lies indecision. Timely decisions are not always right, but at least they allow you to move forward. And even if a mistake is made then this can be dealt with later, again when the time is right.

The lone voice of a MORI employee echoes around the empty chamber once occupied by politics
A similar situation exists with the public spending watchdog, the Audit Commission. Since 2002, one of the commission's main tasks has been to assess the performance of every local authority and give it an official rating (known as the Comprehensive Performance Assessment, or CPA, score). I am now informed that my local council's rating is '4 stars [out of 4]; improving well'. This is not, admittedly, how I would describe the council myself. The star-rating system seems a little too celestial: if pushed I would probably plump for 'Empties bins okay; otherwise dull'.

But that's just based on my own limited experience of finding my bin emptied every week and from reading the local newspaper. Again, I would bow to what I believed to be a superior view, but the Audit Commission's, though thorough and comprehensive, represents no such thing. This is because the Audit Commission cares not for the substance of a council's policies, but only for its methods. So the Audit Commission measures a council's performance against a set of service standards - these are usually set by the government and relate to how efficiently and economically services are delivered. Ironically, the commission even sees political 'ambition' as a policy to be delivered, and formally assesses it according to how well a council's aims are derived, publicised and executed.

Consider Public Library Service Standard number six, which states that a council's library service must provide at least six workstations with access to the internet for every 10,000 local inhabitants. This may or may not be a worthwhile aim for a council. Unfortunately, though, the arguments are unlikely to be publicised and debated because it is not within a council's power to opt out of being judged according to this standard. If the six workstations are provided, then the council gets the stars. The Audit Commission's opinion discourages public thinking about such matters.

The Audit Commission not only measures performance against service standards, it also assesses how good councils are at consulting the public, at inviting feedback on everything, and at being rated 'good' or 'excellent' in numerous satisfaction surveys. In these politically rudderless times, political representatives and public sector managers need to be reassured that what they are doing is worthwhile, and a box of completed satisfaction surveys is to many of them the nearest they will get to hearing a 'public opinion'. But these completed surveys bear little relation to what the public thinks.

The very notion of 'satisfaction' creates problems. To be satisfied is, literally, to have had enough, and to have stopped asking for more. Does anyone really wish for this? Most people, even after they have been given what they want, remain to a degree unsatisfied; this is neither greed nor ungratefulness but the human faculty that underlies all scientific and social development. A council that finds out its local residents are 100 per cent satisfied has little cause to celebrate, for that provides no guide to future action.

But even when a public service organisation believes it has discovered what the public wants, it only turns out to be 'useless information supposed to fire my imagination' (a phrase coined in 1965 by the satisfaction expert Mick Jagger). When the Department of Health announced in January that patients now had a choice of hospitals in which to be treated, it presented this as if it were a response to public demand. Looking closer, this 'demand' had come from a MORI opinion poll of 1,276 over-40s which showed that 68 per cent of them 'would choose a non-local NHS hospital within their strategic health authority if it could deliver treatment in half the time of their nearest NHS provider'. All the public (in this instance, 868 adults) did was to think that what MORI had suggested was probably a good idea, other things being equal. So what we heard was not so much the voice of the people, more the lone voice of a MORI employee echoing around the empty chamber once occupied by politics.

What we have nowadays, instead of a political debate about the public services, is a strange dialogue that takes place between organisations like MORI (supposedly expressing the voice of the people) and organisations like Ofsted and the Audit Commission (who supposedly have the ear of the people). This dialogue centres on standards, and satisfaction ratings and the like, and a great deal of it is posted on the internet for us all to absorb. But the outcome of all this is not informed debate: the spewing out of so many pseudo-public opinions means both that politicians implement 'popular' policies on the basis of the most unimaginative survey results, and that people are left unsure about their own opinions.

What is missing is a genuinely public opinion; a body of prejudices and inconsistencies which, though passionately held, are just waiting to be knocked down and raised up through political debate. By contrast, the big debates had today over the public services seem unpopulated by real people. This is because real people have sunk into the public information quagmire. To put this right we need to close down the inspection industry that generates so much of this suffocating information, and cultivate public opinion afresh.

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