Whatever happened to evidence-based policy? Episode 1

I had thought most governments were now largely avowed supporters of evidence-based policy. Some recent examples from Australia have made me wonder what’s going on. Here’s the first of a worrying series.

1. Target 155

This program aimed to get Melbournians to reduce their residential water consumption to 155 litres per person per day. In addition to advertising, the target was included in water bills.

The newly elected State Government has terminated the program, claiming it was ‘just a political slogan’. The Melbourne Age reported last week:

Mr Walsh said the target had not played a major role in reducing water consumption.

”I think in general Melburnians did a great job with the water restrictions that were in place, and I don’t think they needed the political spin of the Target 155 campaign to know that they needed to be sensible with water use,” he said.

Mr Walsh said he didn’t have an opinion on how much water people should use each day, but said he was confident the change would not cause consumption to soar.

The Age also reported that the private water companies, which make more money when more water is used, have been campaigning for withdrawal of the program.

Now The Age has reported on research commissioned by the water companies, claiming the program had had a significant impact on reducing water usage:

But the report released by Ms Barker yesterday – which was jointly conducted by Melbourne’s three water retailers – claimed the influence of Target 155 could be identified using modelling that eliminated the impact of daily temperatures and rainfall on consumption.

The modelling found the introduction of Target 155 sent consumption below the volumes that would have been expected in the weather conditions that occurred.

Water savings of 53 billion litres were calculated for the period between the scheme’s introduction in December 2008, and August 2010.

”The T155 campaign has been effective in reducing water consumption in Melbourne,” the report said.

The classic tactic when a pesky bit of research gets in the way of a senior decision maker’s opinion is to discredit the research. Since this has been endorsed by the water companies, this might be harder to do (lthough those with a narrow view of evidence-based policy might parrot the erroneous line “without a control group, you can’t determine impact” – hey, it worked for tobacco companies for years).

Will it be rebutted, or ignored? Or will evidence overturn opinion and policy decisions? I’ll be watching with interest developments in this and other issues.


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