01 February 2007

The measurement tail wags the policy dog: family violence in New Zealand

A disturbing story from the BBC about family violence in New Zealand:

The perception that New Zealand has one of the worst rates of domestic violence in the developed world is now common. But violence within families is by nature hard to quantify, and Mike Doolan, former Chief Social Worker and currently a researcher at Canterbury University [Christchurch, New Zealand], said the claim is "impossible to prove". New Zealand falls into a group of developed countries with "moderate to moderately-high" child homicide rates, he said. But international systems for recording other types of abuse vary, comparisons are unreliable and New Zealand may simply be better at monitoring the problem than other nations.
For me there are two main policy issues, both of which point to the need for some humility amongst policymakers. First, the difficulty of quantifying the size of the problem, alluded to in the excerpt above. Second, the question of what any government can or should do to address family violence.

The two are linked. Government routinely amasses a plethora of economic statistics, partly because it’s easier to do so; partly because they can all be reduced to dollars and so compared readily with each other. The availability of financial data tends to make them a high priority for policymakers, whether explicitly or not. And the casualties of that sort of bias tend to be those things that cannot be easily monetised: including the physical environment and the social environment.

I offer no simple solutions to those problems, except to say that, under a Social Policy Bond regime, ordinary people would have more say over the outcomes they want to see targeted. If massive cuts in family violence became a policy priority, then the measurement problems referred to would become far less daunting. People would be motivated to solve them, and in doing that they would make the actual policy goal more feasible.

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