Sunday, 20 May 2012

Is this the most misunderstood political statistic ever?

Some time ago, Ben Goldacre accorded a figure from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) the status of "the worst Government statistic ever created".

Sure enough, the woeful attempt at puffing up potential procurement savings means whoever was behind it should hang their head in shame.

But this week I was reminded of a figure which leaves me fuming every time I hear it misused. Given that it first surfaced almost two years ago I can only guess at what the cumulative effect on my blood pressure has been.

On this week's Question Time, the panel considered the funding cuts/staff reductions faced by forces.

Would not such cuts mean less bobbies on the beat and more crime on the street? Not according to Disabilities Minister Maria Miller.

Arguing that there was plenty of police spare capacity, she said:
"What matters is that we actually get more of those police out on the streets. At the moment we have got just one in ten policemen out fighting crime and the rest are stuck in back offices."

This has to be the most misused figures in Westminster of recent years.

In the way presented by Maria Miller it is plain wrong. It comes from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) who in a report in 2010 gave the Westminster this crucial bit of information. But as More or Less, Full Fact, and no doubt numerous others have highlighted, just because one in ten are on the street it does no mean that the other 90 per cent are pushing paper clips around the office.

The crucial thing is tat 100 per cent here means the total number of officers and PCSOs available to staff the Police's 24/7 operation. However cushy a deal you may think the police have, expecting them all to be available on the beat at all hours of the day, seems a tad harsh.

Some are off duty, some have days off, some are sick, some are in court, etc. Also, the Police have other things to do than be on the beat.

One of the biggest chunks taken out of the 100 per cent actually comes from police doing other stuff, and the examples given in the report are investigation and intelligence. Community policing and response may be important to voters, but surely there are other areas officers need to work in to fight crime?

The big problem is that when a half-stat like this gets into the echo chamber that is the public debate over policy, it really highlights how misconceptions get out there.

HMIC produced a report, which in fairness does question if police human resources are being employed in the most efficient way.

But then part the findings are summarised as "one in ten police are visible at any one time" this is seized on by a new Government looking to reform the police, and the press, then suddenly it is pretty widespread in an oversimplified form being cited by people who have little idea what it is based on or what it means.

Because of this, continues to get parroted by people who, in all likelihood haven't read the original report. They will have just heard/read the 'one in ten police on the street stat', and filled in the other 90 per cent with their own presumptions about how the police spend their time.

It just goes to show how just a little bit of misunderstanding (and for argument's sake we assume the misunderstanding is accidental) can distort figure into a rather potent trump card in the argument for the funding changes and reforms the police are facing.

After all, it is pretty potent. You would be hard pushed to find anyone who would argue that a 10-90 split of police time between busting street crime and filling in forms is desirable or efficient. Which leaves those using the stat in this way clear to put forward their remedy as something bound to improve what would be a shocking state of affairs. Were it true.

What this figure does at a stroke is undermine any attempt to have a more informed debate about how to reform the police to cope with tighter funding. Which is a shame because while this figure may have been twisted, the tone of the HMIC report is still that there IS room to make a more efficient police service.

While the aforementioned DCLG figure has all the hallmarks off a number cooked up by advisors to grab unsupportable headlines, this HMIC one is different.

This speaks more to the problem of the chinese whispers effect in political debate, and a willingness to cite figures without checking them, just because they conform to an outlook you in the most part have already - and this is a much more pervasive and harder to tackle problem.

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