Welcome to the silly season. Charles Dickens once observed: ‘It is the long vacation in the regions of Chancery Lane. The good ships Law and Equity, those teak-built, copper-bottomed, iron-fastened, brazen-faced, and not by any means fast-sailing clippers, are laid up in ordinary. The Flying Dutchman, with a crew of ghostly clients imploring all whom they may encounter to peruse their papers, has drifted, for the time being, Heaven knows where. The courts are all shut up; the public offices lie in a hot sleep; Westminster Hall itself is a shady solitude where nightingales might sing, and a tenderer class of suitors than is usually found there, walk.’
Actually, even in this Olympic shut-down year, Legal London is a good deal busier over the summer than it was in the days of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Nonetheless, at the Gazette we’ve taken the opportunity of a quiet afternoon to have a good old clear-out of our attic offices. And what a dusty trove it’s proved. We didn’t quite uncover the notes for Josiah Tulkinghorn’s appearance as ‘Lawyer in the news’, but some paper files went back almost as far.
The effort prompted two dog day resolutions. One is to clear out more regularly, especially as so much source material can now be archived electronically. The second resolution was triggered by thumbing through press release after press release about some new policy initiative designed to improve justice, save money, or both. And asking the question: what happened to them all? It’s a fact of life that politicians (and businesses) are more enthusiastic about taking credit for launching new projects than shutting them down, and go very quiet about disasters. Unless it’s very big indeed, experience of failure tends to disappear in to a black hole - until some bright spark decides to revive the idea ab initio.
The solution lies in one of the documents I uncovered in the clear-out, near the top of the pile in fact. Test, Learn, Adapt was published by the Cabinet Office earlier this summer. It’s an easy read (one of the authors is Bad Science hero Dr Ben Goldacre) but if you really don’t have the time it makes the case for conducting medical-style randomised controlled trials to test the effectiveness of new policy interventions and that information about failures is cherished as much as about successes. Many examples cited are in criminal justice: the ‘Scared Straight’ programme, for example, proved to be counter-productive when scientifically evaluated. But the principle applies throughout public policy.
My resolution is that, henceforth whenever I receive a press release about some new initiative – private as well as public – is to ask whether it is being subjected to a properly conducted randomised controlled trial. It’ll come in to effect as soon as the politicians get back to work.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor
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