Paul Vallely: Too much information, thank you

Our fixation with transparency and accountability is undermining the very trust they were meant to build

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How are you? I hope you're not one of those dysfunctional people who takes such a question literally. I don't really want a forensic analysis of your mood, psychological state or, worst, a blow-by-blow account of the progress of your latest operation or physical ailment. I am enquiring merely as a conversational pleasantry – an opening acknowledgement of mutual respect – before we get down to the business of the day. You may offer in reply a sentence or two, to which I'll nod sympathetically, but spare me the detail. There is such a thing as too much information.

Some of the purblind people now running the country appear not to understand this. Ministers have come up with a scheme to put on the internet "crime maps" covering every street in England and Wales and showing how much anti-social crime, mugging, violence and burglary goes on there.

This is – pardon my weariness – the latest offering in the arrival of the Big Society, as it is known in Cameroonian philosophy. The Home Secretary, in what must be the ultimate blurring of the old distinctions between left and right, has pronounced, without evident irony, that the scheme will give "power to the people" in the matter of law and order. The new website will make us all feel safer because we can monitor local crime trends and do something about it.

But what exactly are we to do? Not, presumably, set up Cairo-style roadblocks at the end of the street. No, information is power, it seems, and we are supposed to approach our local beat officer or attend a public meeting armed with the latest statistics. In that way we will "drive the priorities" of the elected police commissioners who will be the Government's next wheeze. Public meetings. That should drive fear into the hearts of local hoodlums.

Fear in the heart is a key determinant here. I had an elderly relative who was made paranoid by the hysteria of the local evening paper which seemed to subsist on an almost exclusive diet of outraged crime stories. She was so afraid that she screwed shut her windows for fear of burglars. She also limited the number of times she would make her 500-yard mid-morning walk to the local shops for fear of being mugged.

In vain, I pointed out the low statistical likelihood of anything horrible happening to her. There were comparatively few burglaries in the area, and the victims of unprovoked street violence were largely young men aged between 18 and 25 in the town centre after 11 at night. She was at far greater risk of being trapped in a fire in the window-fastened prison that had become her home than anything else. But no mathematical reality could counter the oracle that was the Evening Gazette.

There is a law of unintended consequences about many political initiatives. Whatever the good intent it seems far more likely that the impotent fear of crime will rise among the vulnerable as a result of crime mapping than that the middle-classes will storm police consultation meetings demanding action. The educated classes know a good deal more about statistical probability. They also tend to live in nice safe areas – the kind of places which will not be stigmatised by the new police maps or find that insurance companies will increase premiums there.

The received wisdom in our culture is that greater transparency and public access to information is a good thing. Yet increasingly we are seeing paradoxes in that default assumption. School league tables have concentrated educational minds on areas of perceived slippage in maths, science and English but have focused the attention of teachers too narrowly, at the expense of a broader education, with all its serendipitous spin-offs. You don't fatten a pig by weighing it, as the farmers say, and you don't educate children by testing them.

In other areas, too, government targets have become ends in themselves. Hospital waiting-lists may have come down, but that distorts other priorities. It is like squeezing a balloon; the crisis pops up somewhere else. The problem of MPs with dodgy expense claims has turned into that of MPs who can't manage their cash flow unless they have a private income. (Back to the future or what?)

The successors of social workers who failed to interfere when children were being murdered in their care now spend all their time ticking compliance boxes and filling out court reports; they are too busy for the firm-but-fair family support that was once social work and is now left to charities such as Barnardo's.

It all goes to Onora O'Neill's argument in the Reith lectures a few years back about how trust has been eroded in modern life and how we create more and more rules to try to make up for the fact.

We have evolved a culture of suspicion. We have so misdiagnosed what ails British society that we are imposing ever more stringent forms of control to hold those in the professions and the public sector to account. We have examiners, inspectors, auditors and regulators to make the world accountable and we demand never-ending streams of information to do it.

Professor O'Neill has spotted that the outcomes we desire are the mirror opposite of what we have set up our systems to deliver. "Our revolution in accountability has not reduced attitudes of mistrust, but rather reinforced a culture of suspicion," she has written. "Instead of working towards intelligent accountability based on good governance, independent inspection and careful reporting, we are galloping towards central planning by performance indicators, reinforced by obsessions with blame and compensation."

In our zeal to promote trustworthiness we have undermined it. The less trust there is, the more rules we require – and the more rules, the lest scope we give to integrity. Health and safety replaces common sense. Employment tribunals replace industrial relations. Cricket technology replaces umpire decisions. Compliance replaces conscience. Pre-nuptial agreements replace love. The more complex our systems of accountability become the more they undermine trust.

So we are left with too much information. But information can never replace trust. Information only creates the illusion of control, much as social networking creates an illusion of human interaction which is only a poor shadow of real friendship. The other day I heard of people checking their iPhones at a funeral.

So how do we decide what information we need more of – and what can we well do without?

Perhaps we should leave the last word to Professor O'Neill: "Far from suggesting that we should trust blindly, I argue that we should place trust with care and discrimination, and that this means that we need to pay more attention to the accuracy of information provided. We will need to work towards more intelligent forms of accountability. This won't be easy. We have placed formidable obstacles in our own path: it is time to start removing them."

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