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Before information gets lost in numbers

Matti Apunen | 29.9.2015

​"Finland lacks the tradition of evaluating active labour market policies with scientific methods, which leads to a dispersed view of the performance of measures.

In Germany for example, the Hartz reforms aimed to make the labour market policy more effective by also introducing an obligation to evaluate policy effectiveness by scientific methods. The rationale was that the evaluations would indicate how the measures could be developed further and help allocate resources to effective measures.”

This quote is from a recent publication by the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (Etla), Muistioita tulevalle hallitukselle (“Notes to the new government”) written by Chief Research Scientist Antti Kauhanen. It gives pause for thought.

It is almost sacrilege to suggest that decision-making in Finland, a country that considers itself extremely rational, is not always based on research data. Does this mean that we are directing significant amounts of funds to policy measures but rely on guesswork, assurances or beliefs in order to evaluate their effectiveness?

There is no shortage of numerical data, mind you. Various interest and lobby groups, research institutions, citizen’s movements and authorities generate vast amounts of materials, all of which they naturally present as facts. The problem is that all this information is far from uniform. While the sources do not always reveal how they have processed the data, I hope it is questioned at least every now and then.

It seems that it is not the lack of information that is problematical for politicians, but rather evaluating whether the information is reliable. Who are they to believe?

I posed this question to Mikael Jungner, a policy maker and outgoing Member of Parliament whose response was razor-sharp.

According to Jungner, evidence can be used to reinforce a perception one has already formed. In this case, it is more than likely that the preconception is reinforced by carefully selected facts. However, if we use the evidence so as to find shortcomings in our own argumentation, it is at least theoretically possible that we are close to an optimal solution.

I agree. First and foremost, good evidence-based decision-making involves the strength calculation of ideas.

Good public decision-making has three objectives. Firstly, it needs to enforce the citizen’s trust in governing bodies. This, in turn, requires transparency in terms of both decision-making and supporting materials. Lastly, decision-making should focus on results rather than on the purity of processes. 

To be able to focus on the results, we have to be sure – or at least believe – that the target-setting is clear and that the implementation of set targets will be measured.

The decision-making machinery that includes politicians, authorities, Parliament, ministries, councils and municipalities -  should be a professional buyer at the research data market, not just a producer of its own truths. The quality of the collected data and arguments should be measured during the preparatory work. 

No finding should be excluded just because of its source.

This is what is called a motivational trap, the greatest stumbling block in political discussion. For example, I may have a motive to participate in the discussion about security policy because I am in favour of Finland’s membership in NATO, but I may also have a good point to make. My attitude towards the NATO membership does not automatically invalidate my arguments about security policy.

However, we should not confuse the right to personal opinions with the right to personal facts. Decision-making becomes dispersed if it is not based on shared facts.

Discussion in the media tends to heat up, and scientific facts and lifestyle beliefs are presented side-by-side with great abandon. People with university degrees have a great belief in the health benefits of diluted birch ash – to each his own, right? However, even if an individual firmly believes that a glass of a homoeopathic drink is of benefit to them, a decision-maker must require evidence, verification and testing for the sake of others.

Matti Apunen
Director
Finnish Business and Policy Forum, EVA

 

 

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