3 Feb 2011

Lost in Translation

Hats off to the Department of Communities and Local Govt for publishing these forgotten documents commissioned by the old government. Mel notes that the cost of these 16 documents was £691k. I was curious. What was in them?

Here's one called Behavioural change approach and the housing sector: a scoping study. It seems to come from Sheffield University's Town Planning Dept.

And here's the first paragraph of the executive summary: This project explores the potential benefits from applying a behavioural economics approach to the analysis of the attitudes, perceptions and decisions of actors operating in the housing sector. The central features of this methodological approach emphasised here are that: economic agents operate under bounded rationality and sometimes use rough rules of thumb to negotiate uncertainty; the limitations of incompleteness of knowledge can be compounded by creative and imaginative capacities; individuals are socially embedded; durable rules, habits and norms are significant and shape beliefs and attitudes; and emotions are a key part of ‘rationality’. This contrasts markedly with the methodological individualism and narrow economic rationality associated with the mainstream economics approach.

What the fuck does any of that mean? Planning, but not as we know it.

Or how about this one?

Collaboration, innovation and value for money: final report of the call-down project, which seems to have come out of the Department itself.

What are they on about here?

Our research suggests the following definition: “Innovation is the collaborative development and implementation of new ideas, knowledge, products, services or ways of working that significantly enhance previous activities, drawing on the resources and skills of a range of partners and users to create partnership-based financing, decision making and production systems to improve performance and outcomes”.

What twaddle!

And here's another curious one. A study to determine whether it is possible to produce Gross Value Added data for upper tier local authorities from Cambridge Econometrics, which I know as a rather smart little building next to the Six Bells off Mill Road. I've always been curious to know what they get up to and now I do. Or rather, I don't. Here is their methodology statement:

NUTS level 3 are currently the lowest geographical unit which the Office for National Statistics produce Gross Value Added figures. NUTS3 areas vary in size, in some cases equivalent to upper tier authority boundaries; in other cases equivalent to groups of upper tier authorities. The purpose of this study is to assess whether Gross Value Added can be produced for all upper tier authorities – i.e., including upper tier authorities which are part of a wider NUTS3 area. This methodology described below is an adaptation of the existing method used by the Office for National Statistics Regional Accounts, applied to a smaller geography. It provides details of the data sources, the current availability of data and the indicators used to apportion the individual components of NUTS3 Gross Value Added.

This is altogether fun and a great way to waste a few hours. I can't understand any of it and I doubt that Eric Pickles can either. But it does give you a little insight into the workings of Whitehall under Blair and Brown. This is what all those "Consultants" were up to.


  1. Mark TiramaniFebruary 03, 2011

    To be fair, I think the first example is probably the result of a direct Google translation of the original "tlhIngan" (Klingon) text.

  2. The first one looks like it's been plucked from the pages of Francis Wheen's book 'How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World'. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/feb/07/highereducation.news1 for a review.

    A candidate for forwarding to Private Eye magazine.

  3. The first translates as:

    "This looks at the behaviour of people in houses from the point of view of economic theory which says that people behave rationally. But when they are not sure what to do they resort to rules of thumb which come from their background, the people they know, and their habits. In other words, they do not behave in the way economic theory says they are supposed to."

  4. I think you are probably right. So the question becomes - why the hell doesn't it say that? Why the obfuscation (good word that)? There's nothing clever about mangling the English language like this.

  5. It's unnecessary complication that's at the heart of it. Many have a vested interest in making sure things do not work efficiently and cannot be understood properly. Just look at the ludicrously bad usability of timers and controls, for instance. If you were a conspiracy theorist, you would almost think that they did it deliberately!

  6. As Anonymous says, "It's unnecessary complication that's at the heart of it." but to give 'consultants' their due, there are many layers of complexity and finding out wtf they are talking about is just the start.

    Other layers in no particular order:
    i)Behavioural Economics is a buzzword in investment and we'll look pretty cool if we give it a nod.
    ii)Despite our previous attempts, it is very hard to make a good case in conventional economic terns for low carbon/renewable/FITs/etc so
    a)we might try BE as an alternative model and
    b)BE goes some way towards explaining why we have failed to make much headway in (..fill in your favourite project here ...), it's not us, you see, it's people being 'irrational'. When they are confronted with policies and statements that don't seem to make sense, like the stuff Mark quoted, the bastards don't just give in as we'd hoped, they use rules of thumb from other areas of life. In particular, 'if something sounds like waffle and bollocks it usually is' Therefore we need another research grant to work out what to do about it.

    The use of such impenetrable language is almost always done to keep the 'discussion' to a few people in-the-know and keep everyone else out. What we are hearing is the internal 'churn' of the government/consultant merry-go-round machine. It is not meant to make sense, it's meant to keep the machine turning.

  7. 'Behavioural economics' seems to be what any social psychologist could have told you anyway ...

    I'm afraid I found the first extract perfectly understandable, if rather waffly. This means I've probably read too much social science.

  8. I'm with Mark on this. Although not an academic, I am asked to review papers for academic journals. Many of the submissions are appallingly written, and get rejected by me because of it. The problem, though, is much wider and more pernicious. People have a vested interest in bamboozling others, in order to create dependencies and 'lock in' - I'm not sure of the current jargon word for this. It takes away choice and options, but at the same time works to create illusions that you have choice and options and that experts can deliver. There are many examples: the pharmaceutical industry are probably the worst offenders, but it is everywhere else, especially in construction.

    PS There are several Anonymouses / Anonynmi posting here. Not the same person. Like me, we are likely to be locked into something we would would much prefer not to be, hence the need to protect identities.

  9. The Guardian have had a couple of good articles on this sort of this recently:




    The second reference refers to George Orwell's Politics and the English Language which is worth a glance if you've got the time.

  10. There is a great "demotivational poster'" on despair.com that says "consultancy, if you are not part of the solution there is money to be made from prolonging the problem".