Children's Minister Hilary Armstrong was due today to outline what could become one of Project Blair's most ambitious, misguided and hubristic projects yet. The Government will attempt to identify children at risk of failure, violent behaviour or criminality at birth, and take the necessary corrective actions to steer them onto a law-abiding and successful path.The Register has some interesting comments about the quality of the data we can expect this database to contain:
Ironically, Armstrong is floating these proposals just as this same predictive approach to future behaviour patterns is becoming discredited. A couple of national newspapers, the Independent and The Observer, appear to have seen outlines of the plans. According to the Independent, midwives, doctors and nurses are to be "asked to identify 'chaotic' families whose babies are in danger of growing up to be delinquents, drug addicts and violent criminals." The plan will be backed up by "research" which "shows that children from the most dysfunctional families are 100 times more likely to abuse alcohol commit crimes or take drugs", and a "source" close to Armstrong says: "It is the 'supernanny' model.' There is no reason why midwives who ask mothers lots of questions anyway can't ask a few more about the family circumstances and identify families where there may be problems. We need to intervene early to stop the cycle that leads to social exclusion."
The information they're sharing, meanwhile, will become more junk-like as the boxes they need to check and the fields they need to fill in multiply. Social workers, police, anyone who's given the job of spotting early warning signs will feel the need to put something in the box, for all too obvious reasons. What's it going to look like in five years time when some kid on your books gets beaten to death, and it turns out you didn't notice anything? The empty box clearly indicates negligence on your part. So the slightest, part-imagined 'signs' will go down, the people you're sharing the data with will see this 'concern' flagged and put in some 'signs' of your own. And as Brian Sheldon, Emeritus Professor, University of Exeter and former director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Social Work puts it, once social workers decide people need visiting, "they need visiting a lot." Or as Hine says, "if you're looking for problems, you will find problems."For another perspective see the proceedings of the LSE conference "Children: Over Surveilled, Under Protected".
The cases will tend to build themselves, the effect much magnified by the 'share and deploy' approach, and they'll also tend to focus on the easier cases. The ones who're easier to get at and who're on the receiving end of self-generating warning signs will get lots of attention (despite quite possibly never having needed any in the first place), and quite possible acquire real problems because of this, while harder cases of real need may not get any attention at all.
At ground level, midwives (and one presumes other professionals) are beginning to see the collateral damage of the Blair Project's data kleptocracy (Sheldon diagnoses this as symptomatic of a country suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder). Some of the women midwives are dealing with have noticed that their histories can be taken down and used against them, and that it does not matter whether or not they have successfully coped, or are successfully coping with whatever the problem might have been. If you tell someone, it will be flagged as a 'concern' and will breed more concerns, and turn you into a 'case'. So they're starting to withhold information, and as midwives, and other professionals continue to ask "a few more" questions, people on the receiving end of the data kleptocracy will start to go underground.
Leaving systems built on junk science sharing junk data in pursuit of imaginary concerns and a pre-defined criminal underclass, while the rest of us hide.( Emphasis added)