On Evidence. On the Political

I want to pursue the discussion about ‘evidence’ as it affects, or is said to affect, policy and funding decisions about play.  I allow myself this indulgence in part because I suspect I am at least partially responsible for provoking comment on the subject; and of course Tim Gill is also thoroughly culpable in this regard.

Before proceeding, however, it’s necessary to dispose of straw man arguments that suggest I am opposed to the collection and dissemination of evidence in support of play. A position which, if held, would be absurd.

Nevertheless, the case for evidence deserves some scrutiny, especially when it tips over into wishful thinking.  But first the work of disposal.

Whilst generally it might be thought bad manners – a mere vanity – to quote oneself,  in this case it offers  the shortest route to reiterating one aspect of my position:

‘I make no complaint that once again ‘play’ is on the evidential hunt, apparently to demonstrate to Government just how functional it is in helping to meet the objectives

‘I do understand why we feel required to play the evidential game.  I play it myself if required. In any case, my position does not require it to be asserted that there is no such thing as persuasive evidence.  My concern is the lop-sided focus on particular forms of evidence.‘ (Emphasis added)

So far so clear: I do not in principle oppose the search for evidence and see that, from a pragmatic perspective, presenting evidence can achieve some gains in the short term, however tenuous and short-lived those gains might be.  And I admit personal culpability in firing off evidence in support of this or that project whenever I thought it would oil the hinges of the policy or funding door I was trying to wrench open.   Welcome to my glass house.

Not us alone

But the idea that evidence is or can be the ultimate salving balm that will objectively demonstrate to policy-makers that, look, here on our cast-iron rationalist  plate, are the peer-reviewed research  findings that, beyond peradventure, are unassailable and therefore: Give Us The Money, is surely naive wishful thinking.

Notice that we are not the only ones playing the evidential game.  So  up step the Arts, with its evidence; now Sport follows with its findings; and, don’t be shy,  Music, tell us how bow strokes on violin will set the synapses zinging.

I’ll stick my neck out here and speculate that much or all the evidence adduced in support of, for example, the Arts, Sport, Music, and no doubt much else, will look pretty convincing.  And each of the ’causes’ will have picked the evidence supporting their outcome claims with the fine discrimination of a gourmet.  Unlikely that outcome comparisons will be made between the ’causes’; or, if so, only ones that appear to demonstrate parochial advantage.

The question to be asked here is straightforward: from a policy maker or funder’s perspective, faced with an array of evidence all of which appear  to demonstrate that there are a number of more or less seemingly equally effective routes to generating the sort of outcomes desired (all about future something or other:  school test results; employability, etc), by what criteria, then, will judgments about funding and policy content be made?   There is only one place to go, and that is to criteria generated by political, ideological and value preferences – whether this is explicitly acknowledged or not.  And for some years now, the dominant political and value landscape has been, and is, a fairly uncongenial  place to pitch one’s tent.   And that is why I hold to my view that:

‘The idea that free play could or can secure a firm foothold within either past or present political and value orientations strikes me as pretty well near absurd.’

That ameliorations are possible, and occur – fragile, temporary, subject to the ever-changing kaleidoscope of priorities – is not in doubt.  But deep-rooted, durable, sustainable forward movement, that is harder to believe in or to demonstrate.  (Though, as I always remind myself, Wales may yet prove a counter-example – something that is devoutly wished.)

What is to be done?

To my own question – what is to be done? – I am uncertain as to the answer.  But let me shelve that question for a moment while I take an excursion around the ‘play scene’, the institutional play scene.   Thinking about it may clear some ground.

Although obvious, it is perhaps not sufficiently noticed or remarked upon that in the UK at least there are play institutions that together can be said to comprise a ‘Play Establishment’.   The four UK national play bodies together are key elements of it and, depending on where the boundary is drawn, other organisations too, though they may not be formally in commune with each other.

One definition of an Establishment is that it is, ‘An influential group within a specified profession or area of activity’ (Oxford Dictionary).   I think the four national bodies ( and perhaps others) meet the definition  and I add that that is a jolly good thing too.  And of course, Government and its machinery form a particularly significant Establishment.

It is a feature of Establishments that, in general, each recognises the legitimacy of the other.   Underpinning and reinforcing this legitimacy is a shared form of discourse marking out not only what may or may not be said, but also the forms of engagements considered appropriate.   To be heard at all one must speak in a semi-specialised, restricted tongue, one that does not question the dominant political dispensation.   Although intensely (lower case ‘p’) political in terms of the manoeuvring and drafting deftness deployed on any particular matter, overall the process has the effect of depoliticising  what are essentially political matters.  Negotiation and dialogue take on a seemingly neutral, technical, quasi-scientific aspect.  It is here, in the depoliticised space, that talk about evidence and outcomes becomes the currency  of choice.

Dependency

In terms of the Play Establishment, so far as I am aware, it is not founded on anything resembling demonstrable, meaningful popular support.  Rather, it comprises institutions that are in practice dependent on other institutions: charitable  funders, the local and national state.   The term ‘dependent’ here is not accidental.  If one needs someone else’s money to do things, even just to exist, one is dependent.  This dependency acts, of course, as a restraint on what can be said, what can be done.

This dependency is exacerbated by the growth in contractual, seemingly businesslike relationships between funders – now ‘clients’ – and fund-receiving organisations, now ‘service level’ providers .   A charity bound-up in a service level agreement, or compelled to enter a competitive procurement  process (the marketisation of the charitable sector), is likely to shy away from criticising its actual or potential client, even where the client – a local authority, for example – is a political entity, its mandate and authority, formally speaking at least, derived from the local popular will.

In addition, the national and other play bodies are generally registered charities, a status which carries benefits, but also limitations. This sense of structured containment is underscored by the passing into law of the Transparency of Lobbying, Non Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 (the Lobbying Act, 2014) which at the very least generates uncertainty as to what constitutes legitimate political campaigning by charities at election times. One might see this Act as symbolising a more general limitation on a charity’s scope for hard-core political action.

So, overall, a combination of institutional structure, law, and market-place hostage taking  results in a narrowing of political space, and a reduction in, and curtailment of, civil society’s capacity to act within it.   And play is, at base, an intensely political matter.

Cleared ground: can we see clearly now?

If what I have described is broadly the case, it takes us to an old and hoary question: Should ‘play’ be more overtly political?  Should it campaign? Should it aim, for example, to connect with parents, that is parents as potential or actual voters?   And of course there are non-parents who understand and value what we are talking about.

I’ve asked ‘should’ questions.  But there is also a ‘can’ question: Can play summon up the wherewithal to enter the overtly political fray?  It may be that it should, but cannot in practice summon up the energy and commitment to undertake the task.   Fair Play for Children, in a zestful comment on Tim Gill’s blog ‘Evidence is vital in making the case for play‘ is clear about the answer to the ‘should’ question:

“Play has always shied away from real campaigning, and yet that is what is now needed.”

But Arthur Battram (plexity), in one of his comment on the same article, touches on the ‘can’ question, and seems to be hinting at what might be called a self-imposed constraint that limits our capacity to act – dare I say it? – freely:

“‘Professionalisation’. What was done for love is now only done for pay, perhaps?”

This latter comment seems to me to be, at the very least, cousin to the sort of point I was making about institutional dependency.

To return to my own line of thinking, if what I have said about Establishments holds water, then it follows that even if the answer to the ‘should’ question is ‘yes’ (though note, I have not argued this here), the Establishment is constitutionally unable to fulfil the role of leading, and perhaps even formally participating in, the capital ‘P’ Political charge.

But be clear, this is not a criticism of the Establishment, it is simply acknowledging what it can and cannot do, recognising the constraints under which it operates.  That it is alive to the constraints  and acts within them is often an actual, and certainly a potential, benefit.  We need a strong Establishment.

Nor is anything said here about the individuals – different people at different times – who populate the Establishment. They of  course retain the right, as individuals, to act  capital ‘P’ ‘Politically’ should they care to.  That is a right we all share.  In play, we might think of it as a yet unfulfilled reserve capacity.  One that it may, or may not, be right to draw on.

3 responses to “On Evidence. On the Political

  1. Lots to get stuck into here as ever Bernard (and that’s without Arthur’s comment). A few thoughts. One is just a brief gesture towards what good public policy looks like. It may well be that governments do not behave rationally or reasonably in engaging with evidence. I think they should, and will continue to take that line in my public policy work.
    Second, I am less pessimistic than you about the prospects for moving towards a richer, more human(e) public policy view of childhood. I agree that by and large, successive governments have tended to see children largely in instrumentalist ways in terms of their potential future contribution to the nation’s economy. But there are lively debates on this, both at the macro level around well-being and in relation to policies like testing. It’s not easy, to be sure. But I am not yet ready to give up the cause.
    Finally, a thought on the theme of ‘many mansions’ – the idea that effective political/social movements (perhaps currents is a better word) tend to have a variety of different types of agents, agencies and activity that together achieve more than each would alone. Take environmentalism: there are clearly many different individuals and agencies of different kinds, with different goals and ways of working. In particular, they have different stances on whether and how to engage with governments and authorities. My thesis is that progress on environmental issues has happened in part because of this variety. It’s rare for a movement solely grounded in direct opposition to government to make much progress. (We call these ‘revolutions’. There have not been many in my lifetime. Arguably some haven’t worked out too well – but that’s a debate for another time.) More often, governments change in response to a wider set of pressures and agents (such as happened with the creation of the welfare state and the NHS, or more recently around the expansion of childcare).
    I’m not saying that what’s needed is an alliance or rainbow coalition around play. I’m saying that a mix of styles of engagement with government is not a sign of weakness, and that having some agencies/individuals ‘close to government’ is a good thing – most of the time. I take your statement “we need a strong Establishment” as agreement here. Of course, anyone who believes government is fundamentally corrupt or evil will take a different view – but people who believe this would probably have bigger fish to fry than public policy on children’s play.

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    • Tim, thanks
      Blast it! I fear we may be pretty near agreement here. My acceptance of the need for ‘a strong Establishment’ coupled with my attempt at a critique of the wider context within which it operates implies, surely, that we need to deploy our arguments and forces across many fronts – but what may those arguments be, and what or who constitutes these ‘forces’?

      I don’t see that we are currently deployed across many fronts. We rely, almost exclusively, on our Establishment which is inherently fragile because its manifest support comes primarily from institutions and organisations that are similarly constituted. We are a one-legged chair,

      The discussion that we both clearly think is necessary, and wish to stimulate, is something along the lines of ‘what is – or ‘are’ – the form(s) of politics with which we need to engage?’ And the answer to that question can only be constructed on the basis of a wider political analysis. Of course, there will not be ‘an answer’;or ‘an analysis’ – responses to the sort of question posed here will always be in the plural,but that should be a source of strength to us (let a thousand flowers bloom).

      But that last sentence should not be allowed to mask the fact that there can be real divergences of view about what should be done; what is being done. We should not self-censor ourselves. Impersonal, dispassionate debate is a source of strength, not weakness. But woe betide those who descend to make debate and contention personal. They would not be of our number.

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  2. Excellent rhetoric, Mr B.

    For those of you unclear as to what sense I am using the r-word, once again I refer the casual reader to Mr Wales’ emporium of disputable, disreputable, and all-encompassing factuality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhetoric

    Forgive me when I say:

    I was ahead of you on this one.

    (and in a foreshadow of later, I seek forgiveness not permission)

    Yes, and thank you for helping me see that I do have a thing, because I do have a thing that went unlabelled until you labelled it, the thing you refer to as:

    “self-imposed constraint that limits our capacity to act”.

    That is one of the key themes of all my consultancy work. I usually blather on about widening and perspectives exploring possibilities, but your term is better.

    all of what you said, and I am saying here, hinges on that: “self-imposed constraint that limits our capacity to act”.

    So, what is to be done?

    to quote a Russian called Vladimir. (No not you, Pootin)

    ————paralude, joking, I mean interlude————- The great joy of commenting rather than blogging is that one is not constrained by the need for coherence and focus. The great sadness of commenting is that few readers ever get even this far into what is patently a poor-quality blog inserted recklessly and violently into an innocent comments box. sorry about that, guv —————————-

    You may not recall this, Bernard, but Jan had a key role in persuading successive governments to spend money on play (I will not allow myself to say ‘invest’) If any political action of an unusually thoughtful nature is being contemplated, firstly I’m up for it and secondly, though he is a gadfly, undoubtedly, Jan is also a vital resource. He is a more crotchety version of Obi Wan Kenobi for any Ludic Jedi smart enough to ask his advice.

    (Bernard you may not be familiar with Star Wars and Mr Kenobi. Mr Wales will assist. You were watching Rashomon on Film4, I was watching Revenge (of the Jedi) on ITV. I should have recorded the Kurosawa)

    A few more random points.

    We both mentioned Wales, the country the person and the Play entity. I have to convey to you the sad but not unexpected, to me at least, news that PlayWales has lost its funding. I have been wondering when Cardiff would finally swat away that turbulent priest Greenaway, Took them longer than I thought. Cardiff has also given £1.5 mill to Groundwork for ‘some play stuff in deprived areas’ ( I paraphrase). Yes. Groundwork. Yes 1500 grand. 1500 large. Wow.

    It’s as if Dobson et al never happened. Politicians, as I have oft-said, make toddlers look studious. If politicians were to adopt a slightly longer view, they could attain the (apocryphal) cognitive level of the goldfish.

    And dare I suggest Groundwork got the dosh and not Greenaway for precisely the wrong reasons, based precisely on the kind of ‘evidence’ and muddled political thinking that you are too much of a diplomat to refer to directly. PlayWales have played a superb long game, they have had a record innings, but they are defeated finally. A criticism: they are in part, guilty of thinking of Welsh politics as a game of rationality rather than a Game of Thrones using daffodils in place of broadswords.

    (I would love to know what Mike’s plan B is. I hope he doesn’t just retire, though Perry knows he deserves to.)

    Like you Bernard, I am easy to caricature as anti-evidence. Pshaw! I’m anti-poor evidence. There is a wonderful surgical dissection of the Daily Mail’s pernicious interventions in our beloved NHS which I found today and reblogged. Find it here:

    http://plexity.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/named-and-shamed-gps-who-miss-cancer-diagnoses/

    It may be of interest.

    To fully expose my nerdery: It is as if Jan Cosgrove is the only other person, apart from Kirk, to beat the Kobyashi Maru simulation at Starfleet Academy (wiki… well, you know where to look) TheTrek myth nicely illustrates that in the important real world games you sometimes can’t win by just sticking to the rules.

    Which brings us to your conclusion or rather my understanding of it… my punchline: This Establishment game cannot be won by sticking to the rules of the Establishment game.

    That is to be ‘professional’.

    Newsflash: the Establishment don’t stick to the rules! Even their own rules! Rules are for little people, like taxes.

    So we need to stop being professional.

    Look how far a letter from one hundred eminent professionals in the Torygraph got us in the debate about early years provision a couple of years ago. New Labour at least listened, like a goldfish, but did listen, then Ballsed it up. This lot are just louts. Why do our academics, like handwringing niceguy Church of England vicars, persist in thinking that you can sit down, like Longford with Brady and Hindley, and negotiate with psychopaths?

    That letter was professional.

    Professional, pah! I speet on your Yanqui profession, gringo! Association of Professional Playworkers? It’s a vainglorious silly oxymoron. I have met some wonderful playworkers, some of whom think they are being professional and want that perceived kudos. Professional is an insult. Only doing my job, being professional, more than my jobs worth – that’s the professional. I like amateurs, because they do it for love not money. Penny Wilson, who I cite because you and Tim, and of course myself, respect her hugely does it for love, not for riches (though she has bills as we all do) not for fame, and not because she is a professional. To my knowledge she has a degree in art and no NVQs. She couldn’t get a professional job as a professional playworker because she is not professionally qualified. Now who would you like as your babysitter? The kid who did playwork at college because her tutor thought she was too weird and thick for Hair and Beauty, or Lady Penelope? Playworkers are better described as craftspeople, for playwork is a noble craft, as I have said before. It can exist within a professional domain, but it is not, in and of itself, a profession. I have ranted about this before; search my blog.

    So, games, professionalism in Establishment games. Seb Coe got a gong. Trust him with the BBC?

    There is, to quote m’leaned friend Professor of Theology, James Carse, an infinite game being played in the guise of a finite one.

    (This bit might be a bit distasteful and lefty and student conspiracy theory for some, but here it is, in shorthand: The Toryboy Bullingdon gang are playing an infinite game, to the unspoken horror of many in their own backbenches (reminiscent of the good German generals who belatedly and half-heartedly plotted to kill Hitler), and it is a long long game, played over generations. It started, well how far back shall we go? For argument’s sake let’s say it started in its modern incarnation the day that the NHS was born, borne on a tidal wave of weary disgust and unalloyed fair play in the immediate aftermath of WW2. The school bullies lost that one to the common man, and they have waited patiently for five generations, to get their revenge. I wouldn’t bother writing a letter to the times. I only sign petitions on 38 degrees because it is expected of me, not in the expectation of any effect. nice to have been wrong a couple of times though, so I’ll keep signing. The lobbying bill has put paid to that lot – just you watch what happens in court if them 38degrees so much as squeak, you too Oxfam. That was easy, the Establishment didn’t even have to take its jacket off, at least the miners put up a bit of a fight. we slaughtered them anyway, it’s what we do, we are the Bullingdon Massive, but hey – respec’ Scargill, old bean, and…Looozer!. End of Spitting Image rant).

    The long game is, only in small part, about the control of education. That is why the early years lobby had to be swept aside, that is why play had to be slashed. Expunge the heresy. all hail the Gove.

    Carse will know better than most, as do I, as a good (ex) Catholic boy, that it is

    ‘better to ask for forgiveness than permission’.

    That should be our motto. Engrave it on your fountain pen and keyboard.

    (I suspect similar wisdom exists in other Abrahamic religions, your mileage may vary)

    FFS, why do we still, still, play by their rules? Beats me.

    (Interesting aside – that quote which I thought was either Francis of Loyola or some other Jesuit, hundreds of years ago, turns out to be less than a century old, uttered by an American female naval officer and programmer. She sounds like a very cool person indeed. A perfect example of the wikipedia problem – it is only useful if you already know a lot about what you are doing. We don’t start carpentry 101 by handing out chainsaws). I’m sure that Rear Admiral Grace Hopper would be the first to point out to the wikinerds that she was quoting not coining.

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Grace_Hopper

    But I digress on my digression.

    IMHO, we can only ‘win’ in the game of playfunding by not seeking permission, by absolutely not ‘playing nicely’. We need to get on with it anyway, and hope for forgiveness.

    Lest we forget, Play Wales just died.

    We? Who’s we? What is to be done? You can’t found a political movement on a scrap of agreement between some old geezers. I’ll have a go, though, if you will.

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