Norman Baker defends evidence-defying policy

Norman Baker, our ever embarrassing Lib Dem Minister for The Bits Of Transport That The Government Doesn’t Care About and part-time conspiracy theorist, pops up in the HoL Sci & Tech Committee report on evidence-based behavioural change policy, defending the coalition’s approach:

Even where ministers are aware of relevant evidence, other factors may lead them to disregard it. This appears to have been the case with current alcohol pricing policy (see Box 3, page 21). Norman Baker MP, a Minister at the DfT, explained: “evidence is best used to inform policy … but not to drive it in an unreconstituted way”; the Government “have to make choices based not just on the evidence-base … but also on the political objectives of the Government at a particular time, and to ensure fairness across the country”. Other considerations might include immediate reaction to events, judgements about ethical acceptability, cost and cost-effectiveness. These considerations might justifiably affect the extent to which a policy is based on the available evidence.

What does “political objectives of the Government” even mean? It sounds awfully like “ideology”. What does “immediate reaction to events” mean? Sounds to me a bit like outlawing a recreational drug because a couple of people who coincidentally used it recently died, or locking a lot of people up for petty crimes because they happened in the context of a recent big news story.

Of course, cost, cost-effectiveness, ethical acceptability, and indeed general public acceptability must be taken into account. But those things are pieces of evidence like anything else. This stuff is all part of the evidence that evidence-based behavioural change policy needs to be based on.

As the report itself goes on to discuss, behavioural change policies will fail if the public does not understand the problem — or the magnitude of the problem — that the policy is trying to solve. The solution must be seen to be proportionate to the problem. Sometimes you need to prepare the public and make your case: a few years of “clunk-click” paved the way for seatbelt legislation. If an intervention is a really good one, it only needs to be on the border-line of public acceptability to work and to very quickly become accepted: opposition to the ban on smoking in public places quickly disappeared, and it takes effort to find people opposed to the congestion charge these days.

Equally relevant is the fact that the public acceptability of interventions depends on their success. Design an intervention that doesn’t actually work — perhaps by ignoring the evidence — and you invite a backlash. The report cites the example of high alcohol prices in Scandinavia. This could perhaps help to explain the media’s obsession with The War On The Motorist: policies to tackle the problems of mass motoring might be unpopular if the number of vehicles on the road carries on growing regardless (even if the situation would have been even worse without those policies).

I don’t know. The formula might be complicated, but I can’t think of any part of it that should not be based on real world values. Can anybody see a favourable interpretation of Baker’s words?

One thought on “Norman Baker defends evidence-defying policy”

  1. “Can anybody see a favourable interpretation of Baker’s words?”

    Yes I can, but …ummm … actually no I can’t.

    I’ve read the select ctte report and when I read those words I sort of went “oh umm yes, well ok I suppose” and continued reading. I then sort of stopped and turned round, frowned and thought “but wait a minute …”.

    I’m sure that NB thinks that what he’d said was perfectly reasonable, and I’m sure plenty of his politcial colleagues think so too. I suspect that what might really being going on in their minds – too embarrassing to articulate, even to themselves – is that they don’t really know how to be sure what good evidence is. So of course you don’t totally rely on “evidence” because you’re not even sure if it actually *is* evidence.

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