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One thing you'll notice if you spend any time at the intersection of policy and social science is that 'evidence based policy' leads not only to distortions of evidence, but a focus on process rather than people. Take social workers. They have been given ever more complex form-filling processes in order to stop failures in monitoring and care. But as Madeleine Bunting said yesterday, failures will probably always occur, and anyway, the best way to stop them is not more form filling but a return to psychological astuteness and careful face-to-face interaction. The mistake is to think that because an extremely devious abuser can fool a social worker, we should retreat from fallible human contact to infallible process. This is a mistake because process is infallible as process, but is far more fallible as effective monitoring and care than old-fashioned face-to-face interaction.

One thing you'll notice if you spend any time at the intersection of policy and social science is that 'evidence based policy' leads not only to distortions of evidence, but a focus on process rather than people. Take social workers. They have been given ever more complex form-filling processes in order to stop failures in monitoring and care. But as Madeleine Bunting said yesterday, failures will probably always occur, and anyway, the best way to stop them is not more form filling but a return to psychological astuteness and careful face-to-face interaction. The mistake is to think that because an extremely devious abuser can fool a social worker, we should retreat from fallible human contact to infallible process. This is a mistake because process is infallible as process, but is far more fallible as effective monitoring and care than old-fashioned face-to-face interaction.

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With social workers the drive to process is created by a desire for infallibility. But there is a general drive to process across many professions and organisations (including, I have to say, the RSA) which comes out of the principles of social science. If some positive change is down to enthusiastic workers, a good leader, and an ethos of excellence this would be disregarded by social scientists as possessing no 'external validity' - that is, no validity outside the idiosyncracies of the lucky hotspot of comity and productivity. So the focus always shifts to process - what generalisable set of manipulations of variables and factors can we pick out and thus roll out more widely.

I am beginning to think that this is a wrong-headed and even pernicious mindset. Precisely what are needed to make positive changes in practices and organisations are what social science can't measure: great people, in a happy and productive environment with an elusive ethos of excellence. These are what make most things work well.

This would have been obvious to an old-fashioned 'paternalistic' firm, or a medievel guild. But in the modern world, especially at the intersection of policy and social science, it is anathema. The story we tell about what makes things work is a story driven by an ever expanding army of consultants and technocrats. Yet the story is a falsehood we would do well to run out of town.

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