Failing to Figure

Whitehall's Costly Neglect of Statistical Reasoning

by Mervyn Stone
December 2009
Distributed by Coronet Books
ISBN: 9781906837075
76 pages
$18.50 paper original

As the size and scope of government grows, so do the resources allocated to public services. But how are decisions taken when departments are sharing out very large pots of money? How do we know that allocations are fair or reasonable? In "Failing to Figure" Mervyn Stone examines the process and finds it lacking in transparency, and even common sense. Government departments put the calculations relating to their policies out to contract, usually to universities, and the bids are assessed by committees that are described as 'independent', but which largely consist of public sector employees directly involved with the outcome. The whole process is shrouded in secrecy: the public may not know who has been asked to tender, which proposals have been turned down or why the winning tender was accepted.

Mervyn Stone argues that this level of secrecy is undesirable, particularly when billions of pounds of public money are involved. He offers examples of failures in public policy relating to the National Health Service, police forces and local authorities, and shows how these failures emerge from a dysfunctional machinery of government that implicates ministers, civil servants and their contracted advisers, consultants and experts. Professor Stone also argues that the process is compromising the integrity of the universities that participate. To stay in business, universities have to compete for lucrative government contracts. Loyalty to their institution can tempt academics to remain knowingly silent on contestable issues they could help to resolve. In place of the present system, he recommends wider consultation, more openness and the publication of the reasons for accepting the winning tender.

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