For the love of statistics!

How data-gathering undermines the work...

In my view, agency (& government) obsession with data-gathering has gone too far.

The method is wrong, the emphasis is wrong, the outcomes are wrong. So what’s to be done?

Image courtesy of ©123rf/sellingpix (adapted)

Image courtesy of ©123rf/sellingpix (adapted)

How numbers are replacing people…


I’m a believer that stats can help.

They can help us understand the realities of our work, its impact and where we might improve.

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Where data is a distraction…

Let me paint a picture for you. It’s not real. It’s a picture. But it’s based on lots of similar stories in the real world.

Two girls and two boys – all teenagers – wait outside a house and commit an assault against a young man as he leaves a party there. It’s a serious assault.

So serious, in fact, that three of the four young people are given custodial sentences. One a two year community Youth Rehabilitation Order. Justice is done.

When the youth offending team (YOT) sends in their stats return for the quarter, there’s a quick response. Their custody figures are way over what they “should be” – something must be done.

There follows period of fraught activity in which the YOT has to:

Image courtesy of ©123rf/johan2011

Image courtesy of ©123rf/johan2011

  • Analyse their figures
  • Identify where things “went wrong”
  • Put together an action plan to improve their custody figures (bring them down)
  • Meet regularly to update on the progress of the plan

Why this is a nonsense…

None of the four young people in this scenario are known to the local youth offending team. In other words, none had offended before. So…

…Nothing the YOT could have done would have prevented this offence, mitigated the outcome in Court or – de facto – have reduced the likelihood of a custodial sentence.

The energy, worry, analysis and report-writing that followed these events, amounted to nothing less than a waste of time.

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Distraction…

I hear stories like this on almost a weekly basis – from social workers, YOT staff, youth workers, foster carers and others.

The thing that grieves me most about it is the wasted time.

These are committed people who want to help troubled children and young people. Yet they spend far too much time chasing figures, living up to “standards” and meeting deadlines that bear no relation to the work they do.

Instead of this tail-chasing nonsense we could be:

  • Seeing children and young people
  • Building bridges to hostile parents
  • Forging partnerships with other agencies
  • Or any number of other useful activities

Turning it upside-down…

I’ve come to the view that there’s one answer to this situation. One over-arching principle that could rectify things and get us focussed again on what matters.

We should only gather the data that serves to enhance practice. Figures should serve our work with children, not the other way around.

Here are some thoughts on how a process to achieve this might begin:

  • Practice first, data second – this must be the guiding principle for any system that seeks to improve. Data is important, but only in so much as it serves practice.
  • Establish best practice – use of research evidence and “best practice” innovations should be what drives our work. Never the data-requirements of government or anyone else.
  • Derive systems that measure the right things – only when best practice is identified, can we build information and data systems that measure the right things – the practice.
  • Separate data from practice – qualified, committed and hard working children’s professionals should not be spending time entering data. Data entry people should enter the data.

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Let the practice speak…

If we base practice on what the data says, we miss too much.

Image courtesy of ©123rf/icetray

Image courtesy of ©123rf/icetray

In the case above the data told us nothing. It asked the wrong question – “why so much use of custody?”  The right question was, “why did these young people go to custody?”

Case studies, scenarios (worst and best case ones), practice examples and in-depth analysis of what people do with troubled kids, will yield much more useful information.

Population stats say nothing at all about individual children or individual workers. Practice works at the individual level, not the population level.

Final word…

Data can help – no doubt about it. But it has to ask the right questions or the right people about specific cases. Anything else is just numbers.

This kind of data is irrelevant. Worse still, it’s a distraction from the work in hand – helping troubled kids to recover.  End of rant!   :0)

What do you think?…

  • How has data-gathering effected your work – for bad and for worse?
  • What should we do differently to rectify the current situation?
  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2016

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