The Signal and the Noise

This post was originally published as an article in the Municipal Journal. 

The child sexual exploitation revelations from Rotherham and from Oxfordshire over the last few weeks have been truly horrific and should give pause to all of us involved in public services.

Clearly there have been significant failings with tragic consequences. It’s quite right that people should be held to account for these failings and that measures should be taken to address them.

Thus we see commissioners being appointed to run the council in Rotherham and the Government consulting on measures to introduce criminal liability for those who wilfully neglect children at risk of abuse.

Given the scale and gravity of the abuses uncovered both these measures are likely to receive widespread support.

But while it is right to hold individuals and institutions responsible for their failings this mustn’t be the totality of our response. We also need to ask difficult questions about the broader cultural and cognitive patterns that allow this to happen.

A large part of the challenge is about knowledge: what we know, how we know it and, just as importantly, what we choose not to know.

In part this is a case of what the American pollster Nate Silver calls ‘the signal and the noise,’ how do we pick out the information that really matters amidst the blizzard of data we all process every day, much of it inaccurate or irrelevant?

In hindsight it is easy to point to the emails that should have been read and the warnings that should have been heeded. But how do we help busy, overburdened professionals to do this in real time? We need to get much better at filtering information both for accuracy and significance.

It’s also partly about how we seek to understand the world. Again, there are lots of ways we can and must improve. At the macro level we need to share data more effectively between public services and use ‘big data’ analytic approaches to detect potential problems earlier and intervene preventively. There are still many obstacles to this.

At the Local Government Information Unit we have been lobbying for a change in the law to introduce a presumption that data will be shared between services unless people specifically opt-out which we believe would be a small but helpful step.

At a micro level we need to get better at listening to front line workers and creating a system and a culture that ensures their voices are heard and their concerns shared.

There are also psychological and cognitive biases at play, including the bystander effect, or diffusion of responsibility, where the number of actors in the system makes it less likely that any one of them will take responsibility, or the sort of groupthink in which a desire not to be out of step with others blinds us to what is really happening.

There’s a lot of research in how to minimise the effects of these psychosocial phenomena but little of this has filtered through to local government so far.

All this needs to be debated. But we need to acknowledge that is all genuinely difficult and we also need to recognise that knowledge is not created in a vacuum and neither are institutional cultures.

Organisations and the individuals within them respond, often unconsciously to the expectations and pressures that are placed upon them by society at large. And these are subject to ebb and flow. For many years after the Cleveland child abuse scandal there was a public discourse about social services being too quick to suspect abuse, now we see that in many cases they were too slow to protect vulnerable children.

We need to look at ourselves as well as pointing the finger at public services. To what extent have we built a public culture that is able to face up to unpleasant truths and to support public servants to do so? Are we too quick to delegate responsibility for difficult issues to the state and to pretend it has nothing to do with us?

There’s a delicate balance here between professional accountability and a much broader collective responsibility. Communities have a crucial role to play in working with public services to prevent abuse and a moral responsibility to do so.

And the public sector has a responsibility to make it easier for them to do so. It’s right that both professionals and our local and national political leaders be held responsible for their actions and inaction.

But we must be cautious about a blame game that focuses exclusively on the public sector. In a complex society that’s just not good enough. We all form part of the state and we must all take some responsibility for its failings.

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