At 3am on Friday 19th September, hardly a single person in England had given much thought to devolution of power beyond Westminster, or to the West Lothian question. By the afternoon, the people of England were apparently clamouring for a debate, and politicians were responding urgently.
Utter nonsense, clearly, yet there is a political theory to describe what took place today. The politicians were rustling around in the garbage. in Cohen, March and Olsen’s (1972) words, we saw pretty well in real-time
a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work.
The fit is perfect not just with Cameron and Miliband, but with a host of journalists and commentators desperately digging around in their trashy old pieces to come up with the solution to the non-problem.
So a quick moment of order, please, before the garbage rustling begins again:
1) Questions of devolution in England are entirely unrelated to what happened in Scotland on Thursday;
2) The West Lothian question is not a question people actually ask, as it doesn’t really affect what happens in people’s lives,
3) Westminster’s parties, and UKIP, have failed to recognise that constitutional devolution is not the same as devolution of power. By suggesting that it is, and making stupidly rash (Labour) or (cynical) commitments (Tories/UKIP) both parties are embarking on a course remarkably similar to the one followed after 2008. Then, the financial crisis led to risk and accountability being transferred from the rich to the poor, but no power came with it. This time around, risk and accountability will be transferred from Westminster to areas beyond Westminster, but without the powers needed.
In parts 1 and 2 of this critique of Alexis Jay’s report into child sexual exploitation (CSE) I made the case that, while there is a political imperative to regard the report as gospel – reflected in the almost immediate drafting of Jay as specialist adviser into the public inquiry to be chaired by the Lord Mayor of London – the report isn’t actually all that good. While there is a good level of detail, the analysis is weak in many places, and in relation to “the ethnicity issue” and the question of organisational failure in the council in particular, this weak analysis has created the conditions for a misguided and ultimately counterproductive response to the very real and very growing problem of CSE.
In summary form, Jay a) kowtows, in spite of evidence to the contrary which she herself sites, to the idea that some kind of ‘assault on political correctness’ will be a helpful response; b) fails to take into proper account the failures of managerialism in the 1990s and 2000s, with the result that the response is likely to involve greater managerialism at the expense of what is really needed, which is greater professional autonomy.
There is, though, one other big flaw in the report, and it’s to this that part 3 now turns. It’s left till last partly because it has not to date even seen as a issue worthy of note, but also because an analysis of it opens the door to actual solutions to the CSE crisis being experienced across the country.
Here’s the key sentence, at para 9.4, describing the approach of Risky Business the voluntary, youth worker-led agency which was financially supported by the Council:
Risky Business adopted an outreach approach, based on community development principles. That is, it started where the young person was; it concerned itself with the whole person and addressed any issues that the young person brought to the relationship; it did not prescribe or direct. Its methods were complementary to those of the statutory services. Its success depended upon the skills of the individual worker and the level of trust which young people were willing to commit to it.
Quite simply, Jay is wrong. While it seems clear that Risky Business has been an innovative organisation doing some really good work with vulnerable young people, what is described here is not a community development approach; it may be a client-led approach, it may even be validly called an advocacy-based approach, but it’s not an approach which develops the community.
So what is community development, how is it different from what Risky Business do, and why is that important now ?
For me, community development is one or more of the following, often interrelated acts:
a) organising with other people so that what comes of our actions is greater than the sum of its parts;
b) organising with other people (the “community”) to develop support structures and ‘fight back’ options for (ex-)vulnerable people, which kick in as and when the state fails or isn’t there ;
c) organising with other people to require that the state changes its systems so that needs are better met;
d) organising with other people to require that the state acknowledge the legitimacy of what you have set up as part of a) and b) with other people, and support it.
Now of course this rough definition can be contested and refined, but what seems clear is that Risky Business wasn’t involved in any of those things, at least in term of its CSE work. They identified and worked well with vulnerable young people, referred them into the social care system and got appropriately angry/advocational when those young people remained at risk, but they weren’t in the business of organising systems change or community-wide resilience and fight-back.
Jay’s key conceptual mistake, then, is to suggest that community development as a response to CSE was available but untapped by the social care system. It wasn’t. But in making this mistake, Jay does unknowingly do us a service, because, at least to the critical reader, she identifies the space that needs to be filled in future by social work professionals.
This for me, as someone now quite involved in child protection innovation, is the most important challenge which this critical engagement with the Jay report. The challenge for social workers, and social work educators behind them, is to start to fill the community development space, such that communities themselves generate safer, happier environments for children and young people.
There isn’t space here for a full exposition of the theory and practice of a move by social workers to (re)fill the community development space , but the key features I would want to see are:
i) an approach embedded in a coherent theory of practice, based on Sen’s capabilities approach and inclusive of his too often disregarded social choice element, whereby social workers facilitate debate and agreement with local communities about how they come together to achieve their agreed ‘common good';
ii) social workers as unashamed agents for systems change , using their ‘all round’ skills and competencies to draw in and motivate not just local people but other agencies, such as Risky Business-style youth workers;
iii) an understanding that, when it comes to CSE, the scale of the problem is not just huge in itself as a result of the societal change I wrote about in part 1  but also because it is linked to a growing trend of inter-child sexual abuse, where girls become vulnerable about their own identity (effectively convinced they are are little more than sexual playthings) even before or as they become exposed to exploitation by adults. Related to this is the acceptance of and strategies to cope with the fact that the problem is simply too large for their to be anything other than a community-based response;
iv) a strategy for community development which is resolutely race-blind so as to avoid the consequences of social stereotyped responses, but is ‘network alert’ i.e. understands and is able to target the actual networks perpetrators use, irrespective of ethnicity.
v) builds on the best of the Sure Start model in terms of working with local communities as above, but sees the possible locus of action in much wider terms, so that; social choice; agreements, for example, are developed in local retail (and here the union movement will be vital), in and around transport hubs etc. (here we are talking about child protection in general as well as CSE). Thus, while it’s good to recognise the work that people like Risky Business have done in training e.g. taxi drivers and dog walkers, we need to recognise that without the community development catalysm integrated into that training, such work will not be very effective.
vi) an acceptance that such a dramatic shift in social work practice will not go unchallenged by those who have a vested interest in creating a new, ‘shallower’ form of social worker who is less interested in the ‘social’, and more in forms of control over ‘troubled families’.
 It’s also worth noting, though less crucial a background to what I advocate in terms of a renewed community development approach from social workers, that Jay also talks uncritically of a ‘child protection approach’, adopted by social work teams and in supposed opposition to the community development approach she ascribes to Risky Business. It’s never actually clear what she means by ‘child protection model’ (para. 9.14) but we can assume she’s referring to the process of risk assessment and intervention that she describes within the report. I think to call this THE child protection approach is wrong, as it’s just as valid to describe the community development , Sen-based approach as an (effective) child protection approach.
 I am currently working on a document for DfE which does exactly that, and may publish a version of it here next month
 I actually prefer the term “institutional architects” but it needs more of a narrative before it’s used more widely.
 I now recognise that in setting out these social changes I didn’t refer sufficiently to the phenomenon of male ‘emasculation’ and its connection to a misogynic attitudes. Reading Phil’s useful piece on Rotherham reminded me of that.
A local story, this one, but one which reflects the power of whoever gets to say we should be grateful.
In 2008, we got very excited by the £350m+ redevelopment of Skelmersdale. The developer told us
This is an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Skelmersdale to deliver a new heart for the town with brand new facilities that will not only benefit everyone who lives, works and visits the town, but also bring in much-needed investment.
It didn’t happen. House prices fell, you see, so the developer wasn’t very keen anymore.
In 2012, we got excited by the new plans for a £20m investment, with 350 jobs. St Modwen’s, still the council’s development partner, because the council is shite at contracting, said:
The council’s decision on the planning application brings the vision for the town centre one step closer in the process. The participation of the local community has really supported the efforts of the partners, who have worked hard to keep the plans alive throughout these challenging times.
How nice of him.
And West Lancashire Borough Council Tory council said:
The regeneration of Skelmersdale town centre will bring huge benefits to everyone in the borough, not just those living in the town.
On 5% of the original deal. Wow, that was efficient.
It didn’t happen, though.
In 2014, we’re supposed to get excited about a planned £4m investment, bringing 40 jobs. The new developer says:
The cinema, along with the restaurants and cafes, would be a real boost to the local economy and we hope that we can start work on the complex in the new year. We’re committed to playing a significant role in the ongoing improvement of Skelmersdale.
Wow, on 1% of the original deal.
This amused me mildy:
Chris Dillow, 7th Setpember 2014:
It was not Keynes who convinced capitalists of the need for full employment but Lenin.
Me, 12th September 2009:
[F]ar for being a pro-active economic strategy to bring sustained growth and harmony, Keynesianism was a reaction to the social upheaval of the 30 years leading up to the publication of The General Theory in 1936. As Antoni Negri put it in 1968:
“The October Revolution had once and for all introduced a political quality of subversion into the material needs and struggles of the working class, a specter that could not be exorcised……….Once the antagonism was recognised, the problem was to make it function in such a way as to prevent one pole of the antagonism breaking free into independent destructive action.”
Of course, in Britain it wasn’t simply the October Revolution that gave capitalism enough of the collywobbles to allow Keynesian thinking to emerge into the light of day; in the early 1930s not only will European revolutionary activity have been well in mind, but the effective actions of the Social Democratic Federation in the 1890s would still have been well in memory, just as the violence during the miners’ strikes and at Wapping are etched on the minds, and not a few skulls, of my generation.
But the key point is clear, the strategy of full employment creation through demand push expansion came about because capitalism and capitalists were scared of what might happen if they didn’t pacify the working class.
Chris has always been just that little bit for succinct. Which I guess is why people read him, not me.
I’ve read and re-read the Alexis Jay report into child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, and now feel able to comment. Actually reading a report properly before commenting on it is, I well understand, something of a minority sport nowadays, but one I grew used to in the days before the absolute need to offer comment within minutes of publication.
Anyway, There are a number of things that stand out for me, and which I’ll cover in two longish commentaries:
1) The reports’s good, but not that good, and shouldn’t be taken as gospel
The Francis report into the poor care at Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust was immediately hailed as everything that needed to be known and done about both mid-Staffs and the NHS in general. In parliament, Labour called for the implementation of all the report’s recommendations even before it was physically possible to have read it. In fact, it turned out that some of the recommendations were misguided, and reflected a good deal of ignorance on the part of Francis and his team.
The Jay report, while more limited in scope (it makes no national level recommendations, as it was commissioned by the local authority) falls into the same bracket, because it can be bent – knowing that most people won’t actually read it) to most pre-established agendas: it’s all about race; it’s not all about race; it’s all about leadership; it’s all about reporting. Whatever your agenda is, you’ll find something in there to back your claim.
In fact, the report’s a good report, especially given the tight time constraints against it which it was battered out (the grammatical errors are testament to that), and offers very important insights and details, but it’s far from a great report, carrying great authority (to be fair to Jay, such authority is never claimed).
While it’s very good on both the institutional attempts and failures to get to grips with the situation, and on the the harrowing details of the exploitation of young people, the analysis in several places in inconsistent or non-existent. This is crucial when it comes to the ethnicity issue (see below), to which a specific chapter is devoted, precisely because it now allows those with pre-set agendas to cherry-pick, but it several other areas too the report provides more questions than answers.
Perhaps the best that can be said of the report is that while it doesn’t format those questions well itself, a reasonable critical analysis of the findings should contribute to the formulation of a good set of questions for the fuller public inquiry into nationwide child sexual exploitation, which Labour is now (rightly) proposing and which should be allowed to build on rather than replace the work being done by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (which is properly referenced in the Jay report).
2) The question of ethnicity
The question of whether being an Asian man makes you more likely to sexually exploit children because of your “culture” is the one that has dominated the media. The Jay report itself appears conflicted. The chapter on ethnicity starts with a categorical enough statement:
As has been stated many times before, there is no simple link between race and child sexual exploitation, and across the UK the greatest numbers of perpetrators of CSE are white men (para 11.2).
This suggests that those arguing for ‘race-blind’ protection and prosecution. Sunny Hundal, for example, argues, using the same assertion in the Jay report that:
There is certainly a problem here but its not about race or religion – it is about misogyny and a desire to subjugate women……The men preyed on these girls because they were weak or because they were physically or mentally intimidated, not because of the colour of their skin.
Yet just a few paragraphs later, the Jay report appears to backslide on its evidence-based position:
The issue of race, regardless of ethnic group, should be tackled as an absolute priority if it is known to be a significant factor in the criminal activity of organised abuse in any local community. There was little evidence of such action being taken in Rotherham in the earlier years.(11.11)
This backsliding (which actually dominates the executive summary to chapter 11) opens the door to those, such as Ben Cobley and now (in practice rather than Ben’s theory) the BNP/EDL are keen to peddle their nonsense about embedded “ethnic favouritism” (the argument presumably being that if this allleged favouritism were removed from public policy, child sexual exploitation would magically cease).
This is unfortunate, since there is a perfectly coherent explanation as to why perpetators in one area may tend to be one ethnic group rather than another, and indeed why perpetators identified may come from certain ethnic groups in numbers which are disproportionate to their numbers within the overall population. It is an explanation which allows for prosecution and protection to remain as ‘race-blind’ as it should be, while still ensuring that the local contexts for perpetration, which mean that perpetrators come disproportionately are of a single ethnicity, are still appropriately taken into account.
It’s not rocket science. When I discussed the ‘issue of ethnicity’ with a senior social worker colleague the other day, she was quite clear: Asian men in some Northern towns may be the main perpetrators of child sexual exploitation not because of their ‘culture’, but because of the particular “infrastructure” that their working lives provides. In simple terms – they drive taxis, or have friends who do; they work in/own kebab joints, where young people (especially those unsafe and/or unhappy at home) congregate; they work irregular hours in family businesses, in which the don’t clock on or off, and in which absences of two or three hours go unremarked.
Now of course, taxi driving and kebab shop owning can be seen as a part of an Asian ‘culture’, but it is more historically accurate to see it as a structural feature of changes in the economy, and the racial discrimination that accompanied those changes, which just happens to provide, in conjunction with the growth of mobile technology and social media over the last 15 years, the opportunity for people who happen to be of Asian ethnicity to become involved in exploitation. As Arun Kundnani sets out (see references here) in relation to Northern mill towns :
As the mills declined, entire towns were left on the scrap-heap. White and black workers were united in their unemployment. The only future now for the Asian communities lay in the local service economy. A few brothers would pool their savings and set up shop, a restaurant or a takeway. Otherwise there was minicabbing, with long hours and the risk of violence, often racially motivated. With the end of the textile industry, the largest employers were now the public services but discrimination keptmost of these jobs for Whites (2001:106)
If this analysis is taken on board , it becomes perfectly reasonable to construct child protection and perpetrator prosecution processes which are both ‘race blind’ and context aware. If more Asians are prosecuted, so be it – being forced into the taxi business by employment discrimination a generation ago does not legitimise heinous actions – but it can still be accepted that there is no direct relationship between ethnicity and a desire to have sex or sell sex with underage girls (and of course this analysis leaves aside that taxi drivers may be prosecuted because they are easier to identify than people who do not go out onto the streets late at night but have the same intent).
3) Rotherham may turn out to be better than the rest
Rotherham: “the nation’s exploitation capital of England”, screamed the Guardian headline to one of the many fact and thought-free commentaries which appeared in the first days after publication of the report.
This is what the report actually says:
At the time of the Inquiry there was no standardised reporting of child sexual exploitation that would allow reliable judgements about whether child sexual exploitation was more or less prevalent in Rotherham than in other parts of the country and the very nature of the problem means that accurate reporting will continue to be a challenge. It seems likely that the existence of the Risky Business project, its ability to attract referrals directly from children and parents affected by sexual exploitation, and the attention given to child sexual exploitation at a multi-agency level over the years meant that the problem would have been more visible in Rotherham than in some other parts of the country (para 4.11)
In short, Rotherham is almost certainly no worse in terms of numbers of sexually exploited children, and probably a good deal better (although the massive under-resourcing of the council reported by Alexis Jay certainly had an impact on Rotherham. Whether or not that will in time be evidenced is open to doubt, but there is simply no evidence – and this follows from the analysis above – that Rotherham has a unique toxic mix of people and circumstance which makes it more prone to a sex exploitation epidemic than anywhere else in the country.
The issue of “standardised reporting” is an important one. When I discussed this point in the report with social workers who had not read the report last week, they immediately stressed a point made elsewhere in the report (para 13.13) – the tendency for actual child sexual exploitation to be hidden by figures and reports relating to guns and gangs; that is, just as in Rotherham until fairly recently, there are still lots of areas in the country – including London – where children being raped is seen as either incidental to ‘more serious’ crime patterns, or remains simply not known.
In general, right across the country, there are senior council officers and police commanders in a state somewhere between panic at being found out and continuing denial. It waits to be seen what happens next in relation to a possible public inquiry, but I think it’s better to prepare for more and bigger shocks.
4) The perfect storm
But shock at new revelations will not be enough. As other horrors are exposed, we need to understand better why there has been this apparent nationwide explosion in abuse and exploitation.
The Jay report gets halfway there. It acknowledges, as best it can in the context of limited data, that the actual incidence of child sexual exploitation is likely to be higher in the 200os and 2010s than it was in the 1990s, when it was largely still wrongly referred to as child prostitution, but it makes no effort to establish why, because the focus of the report is instead on why the authorities failed to respond to the information they were getting from Risky Business and others.
The reason for the upsurge, though, is not that hard to find. Across the country new online pornography and mobile technologies, and arguably also imported rap discourses, have created a toxic mix of deeply misogynist attitudes, whereby girls (of any ethnicity) are regarded without due humanity, and new opportunities and tools to engage in sordid sexual (and increasingly financial) gratification. A vital aspect of this toxic mix is the stripping away from young girls of their self-esteem, such that they become compliant in their own abuse – witness the details in the report of how abused girls cling to the notion that they are in a loving relationship.
This isn’t just happening in adult-child exploitation situations; perhaps even more alarming is the normalisation of sexual violence and exploitation between children, where sexual degradation of 13 and 14 year olds through repeated sex acts has become a normalised part of growing up.
If we are to move on from Rotherham, we need to accept that, while the council and police institutions may have failed, they (and lots of others around the country) have partly failed because they were hit by this perfect storm of ‘modernity’, of the type Giddens (1991) describes so presciently, in which whole tranches of the population find themselves, through the collapse of time and space, utterly ‘disembedded’, prey to ‘ontological insecurities’ of the type my and previous generations never were, and then ‘re-embedded’ in weirdly perverted social norms. Of course, it is those who are materially powerless – poor families in Rotherham spring to mind – who suffer most from in these reformed social relations.
5) Moving on from Rotherham
That’s enough for today. In parts 2 and 3, I’ll explore how we, a society as a whole but led (I suggest) by a re-energised, re-focused, even re-professionalised social work profession, might start to tackle some of the social ‘disembedding’ that has led (in part at least) to what we now see in Rotherham. That involves putting the social back in social work (via Amartya Sen).
In setting out this agenda, Ill keep coming back to the Jay report, looking in particular at the sections on management failure and loss of professional autonomy (not least Barnardo’s part in that), and at the mistakes assumptions Jay makes about what she sees as two ends of the spectrum – the “community development model” she wrongly ascribes to Risky Business, and the “child protection model” which she acribes, without due critique, to Rotherham’s social workers.
There’ll also be a section on Jay’s wrong-headed dismissal as irrelevant the fact that CSE cases made up just 2-3% of all children’s social care cases.
Rotherham is not of course a mill town (though it has had some textile industry), but some of the same processes have taken place, and this is an analysis of the wider position in the North of England.
 And for those who refuse/are unable to grasp the concept, it may be worth asking why it always seems to be bankers, and almost never postmen, who commit bank fraud.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard really hates Jean-Claude Junker, and he’s on sparkling form with this piece about how Juncker’s accession to the Commission presidency, as a result of the craven backsliding of, in turn, Italy, France Germany, is very bad news for everybody, but for France and Italy in particular; Austerity will be for ever, says Ambrose, and neither France nor Italy can withstand such absurd self-imposition of harmful economic policy:
This status quo is ruinous for France and Italy, yet Francois Hollande and Matteo Renzi have gone along meekly, leaving David Cameron to make quixotic stand against a decision that is nearly suicidal for the EU itself. They think they have secured breathing-room on austerity as a quid pro quo, but there was no substantive change on EU deficit rules in the summit conclusions. “The threat of more flexibility in EU fiscal policy has been avoided,” said Holland’s premier Mark Rutte, shooting their fox stone dead before they had even returned home.
Greater forces are at work in any case. Perma-slump is already written into law under the EU Fiscal Compact. Each country must cut its public debt mechanically for twenty years until the ratio reaches of 60pc of GDP, regardless of monetary policy or the state of the world. This is already haunting France as it slips deeper into a debt-deflation trap, with zero growth causing the debt trajectory to spiral upwards, despite one austerity package after another.
French debt jumped to 93.6pc of GDP in the first quarter from 91.8pc a quarter earlier. Gilles Carrez, head of the French parliament’s finance committee, says it will probably punch through 100pc by next year. This means that the debt will have to be cut by 40 percentage points, or 2pc a year, in the midst of an unemployment crisis.
It is worse for Italy, with debt ratcheting above 133pc. Mr Renzi can try to gain a little leeway for extra investment, but the task is beyond any political leader at this point. The EMU straight-jacket imposes obliges him to run a primary budget surplus of 5pc of GDP for year after year even if the European Central Bank meets its 2pc inflation target, which is it failing to do. At the current 0.5pc inflation rate , Italy has to run a surplus near 7pc to comply.
I agree completely with Ambrose on how ruinous such mechanical austerity would be. After all, I wrote about how mad it was two years ago.
But where I differ is on whether it’s actually going to happen. This is what the European Council summit conclusions Amborse refers to actually say:
The European Council welcomes the abrogation of the excessive deficit procedure for several Member States. The possibilities offered by the EU’s existing fiscal framework to balance fiscal discipline with the need to support growth should be used. Given the persistently high debt and unemployment levels and the low nominal GDP growth, as well as the challenges of an ageing society and of supporting job-creation, particularly for the young, fiscal consolidation must continue in a growht-friendly and differentiated manner. Structural reforms that enhance growth and improve fiscal sustainability should be given particular attention, including through an appropriate assessment of fiscal measures and structural reforms, while making best use of the flexibility that is built into the existing Stability and Growth Pact rules. In this context, the Commission will report to the European Parliament and to the Council on the application of the EU governance framework by 14 December 2014, as foreseen in EU law (‘6-Pack’ and ‘2-Pack’).
Now, I grant that this isn’t yet a “substantive change” to the austerity rules, but then that’s not what this European Council was about. This was about setting the priorities for the Commission for the 2014-19, and this agreement closely reflects the Council president Hermann Van Rompuy agenda paper, in which he called for a refocusing on growth, employment and “social protection systems that are efficient, fair and fit for the future”.
So while Rutte is, presumably for his own domestic purposes, claiming that austerity still holds firm, the opposite appears to be the case. Juncker has been instructed by the European Council to report back to Council and to Parliament in six months on how, without the faff of rewriting the SGP rules and rescinding EU law, those stupid rules and laws can be best ignored.
That, frankly, is confirmation of a huge victory for the centre-left governments in France and Italy, won from under the nose of Cameron, Rutte and others. Not only does it set the agenda for a post-austerity Europe, it also very deliberately holds Juncker’s feet in the fire: the clear message is “do what we say, or Article 234 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union may be coming to get you and your buddies”:
If a motion of censure on the activities of the Commission is tabled before it, the European Parliament shall not vote thereon until at least three days after the motion has been tabled and only by open vote.
If the motion of censure is carried by a two-thirds majority of the votes cast, representing a majority of the component Members of the European Parliament, the members of the Commission shall resign as a body and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy shall resign from duties that he or she carries out in the Commission. They shall remain in office and continue to deal with current business until they are replaced in accordance with Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union. In this case, the term of office of the members of the Commission appointed to replace them shall expire on the date on which the term of office of the members of the Commission obliged to resign as a body would have expired.
There’s a lot of people in a lather about the Facebook research, in which 600,000 people were fed happy content, and 600,000 sad, so as to find out whether some people being happy on Facebook made other people sad. It’s unethical, says a law professor, because Facebook didn’t get consent*. Alex is so incensed he’s going to give up Facebook.
This makes me wonder why there isn’t the same big lather about Randomised Control Trials (RCTs), which can actively do down the life chances of participants, without those participants ever knowing what happened and – even if they do know they’ve been in an RCT – unable to reverse the effects. As this government paper recommending the widespread use of RCTs says:
Sometimes interventions which were believed to be effective turned out to be ineffective or even actively harmful. This can even be the case with the policies we think will be guaranteed to work. For example, incentives have been used to encourage adult learners to attend literacy classes, but when an RCT of this policy was conducted, it was found that participants attended approximately 2 fewer classes per term than the non-incentive group…..we could have done harm to the adult learners with the best intentions, and without ever knowing we were doing so (p.17).
True, RCTs tend not to be designed so that intuitively harmful things are done to people, but then the whole point of them of an RCT is that they may do harm, however counter-intuitive that may be to those who propose the study in the first place.
So how exactly is the Facebook research more unethical than widespread government research and consequent social policy? Or have RCTs just become so much part of the social policy furniture that no-one questions them anymore.
Maybe, if this question is provoked, the Facebook research will turn out to be massively socially useful, just as the research team intended, I’m sure.
* The issue of informed consent is course vital, even though bad things happening to people are still bad things, whether or not they are consented to.
In the adult learner incentive RCT referred to in the government paper linked to above, consent from individuals was obtained (I looked it up). However, in some RCTs, especially clutster RCTs, it becomes impractical for all individuals to provide informed consent and ethics committees have to weigh up the pros and cons, using available guidance from national and international-level experts who make the ethics of RCTs their life’s work.
So, for example, I’m not sure from the literature whether the government funded RCT into whether texts sent to people who owed fines to courts sought consent from all those who ended up as subjects of the study. More seriously, in the ongoing RCT into the Safeguarding Assessment and Analysis Framework (SAAF) child protection assessment tool, conducted at cluster level with social work teams as the unit of randomisation, it’s easy to see how difficult it would be to get informed consent on all families (and who in the family?) randomly assessed or not assessed using the tool being evaluated, especially as a decision not to give informed consent would then presumably provide social work teams with a tricky decision, both in terms of ethics and management, as to whether they should use the tool or not. Arguably, therefore, we have a trial which actively harms children, without their or their families’ knowledge, by dint either or using the tool at (cluster) random, or not using the tool at random.
This is in no way meant to be a criticism of the evaluators commissioned by DfE, who I’m sure have gone through all the correct ethical processes, and probably a few steps beyond too. I raise it simply because it highlights the tricky issues with consent. FWIW, I’ll be looking out for the results of this RCT with interest, as my hunch is that the use of the SAAF tool may turn out to be less useful than its promoters suggest it is, compared (say) to flexible and autonomous professional judgment which moves beyond the parameters of the its ‘stages’ which, of themselves, are grounded in contestable assumptions about what child protection is and should be.
What the RCT will show up will depend to a great extent on how the desirable outcomes are defined (what, after all, is a protected child, and is that the same as a happy one with a good chance of growing up happy?)