28 May 2007


Gordon Brown will shortly become Britain's unelected premier. He has promised to introduce more "transparency" into government. Concepts such as transparency and opennness were also popular with the current incumbent Tony Blair. The present administration introduced the Freedom of Information Act, intended to make information about government activities more accessible to ordinary people. The results of the Act have had mixed reviews, with some claiming they represent a genuine contribution to transparency, and others arguing they are a sham.

But is "transparency" an important goal? Do voters need to know about what goes on behind the scenes? Or is there a risk that transparency becomes a substitute for more important issues, such as whether new legislation is a good thing? Which is better: a good deal of unconsidered legislation, with voters being able to see everything about the processes involved; or legislation of higher quality and lower quantity, shielded by a certain degree of secrecy?

Can the concept of "transparency" be used against voters, by encouraging legislation which allows information about private citizens to be made more accessible, or by encouraging whistleblowing? Does a culture of information accessibility make the sharing of information about individuals between different government agencies more likely, and is this desirable?

Other articles
Stumbling & Mumbling on freedom of information
Ben Fenton on freedom of information
Bel is Thinking on MPs opting out of FOIA
UK Liberty on MPs opting out out FOIA
ARCH Blog on information sharing
The Times on freedom of the press
Not Saussure on whistleblowers
Onora O'Neill on trust and accountability
Shuggy on grassing

21 May 2007

Genes and opportunity

Most people would agree that one of the key political issues is this:
How can talented children from poor backgrounds have the same opportunity as those from wealthier backgrounds?

To assess where we are in terms of this goal, we can look at data on social mobility. The problem is, the data can only be interpreted in conjunction with data about heritability of talent.

Say, for the sake of argument, that “ability” is 100% inherited and has no environmental component. Then, in a society that was perfect in terms of the above goal, so that social position was perfectly correlated with ability, would we not find that people never moved from the class they were born into?

Therefore, does it not follow that you cannot assess whether we have the “correct” level of mobility without taking into account heritability? In which case, are not the arguments of both left1 and right2, to the effect that there is “clearly a problem” because so few from the lower classes rise up the hierarchy, entirely specious?

1. Alan Johnson: "There is still a long way to go. A child who is not on free school meals is twice as likely to get five good GCSEs as one who is."
2. David Willetts: "Just 2% of children at grammar schools are on free school meals when those low income children make up 12% of the school population in their areas."

Other articles
Not Saussure on mobility
Stumbling & Mumbling on talent
Conservative Party Reptile on grammar schools
Daily Telegraph on the distribution of ability
The Spectator on David Willetts
Stumbling & Mumbling on nature vs nurture
Peter Hitchens on grammar schools