What’s the point of ‘more studies’ if you ignore their results?

Any particular reason to assume a ‘new’ sociological study, commissioned by the same party today, would turn out any different?

Raphael Vassallo blogs: It might look like I’m picking on PN leadership hopeful Chris Said... I'm not.
Raphael Vassallo blogs: It might look like I’m picking on PN leadership hopeful Chris Said... I'm not.

It might look like I’m picking on PN leadership hopeful Chris Said... this being the second consecutive article I’m writing in reaction to ‘something he said’ – but the truth is... I’m not. Honest. It’s just that Chris Said has this very consistent habit of placing his finger squarely on the very ‘crux of the matter’, as it were.  Invariably, he tends to speak volumes more than he actually intends.

He’s not the only one, of course: as I intend to illustrate later in this very article. So if I single out Chris Said at all, it’s just to get the ball rolling. And he should take it as a compliment, really. It is also a reflection of the fact that (no doubt due to his unrivalled experience in politics) he always says it better than all the rest.

And this week, he pulled it off twice in quick succession. Last Saturday, he “pledged to commission a broad sociological study of Maltese society, that would allow the PN to understand the changes that have taken place in recent years”. This ‘detailed sociological study’, he added, “would be conducted by sociologists, economists, and other experts” and “would look at issues concerning the family, their aspirations, the types of families that existed and what binds and distinguishes them.”

Separately, in an interview with the Malta Business Chamber, he also said: “I have nothing against high-rise buildings as long as studies have been done [...] It is important that development happens within a serious, studied, general plan where we know the impact on the local and national infrastructure, as well as neighbourhoods...”

You will note that the two statements are actually quite unrelated: the former is concerned with the Nationalist Party and its apparent (and inexplicable) inability to understand a ‘societal change’ it helped to bring about itself. It is therefore of little interest to anyone outside the confines of the PN: clearly, Said was addressing the party insiders here, and not the wider population.

In the latter quote, however, he touches on an issue of national concern. Said was wearing a different hat on this occasion: that of a potential Prime Minister, outlining how his government (as opposed to his party) would approach something like a national development policy.

Yet the reasoning he uses is exactly the same in both. He will commission ‘studies’... as though ‘commissioning a study’, in itself, is some kind of magic wand solution to any conceivable problem.

OK, enough about Chris Said. Like I said earlier, he is not the only one to place disproportionate trust in ‘sociological surveys’ on this level. Both Tonio Fenech and Edwin Vassallo highlighted the need for ‘societal impact studies’ before last month’s vote on the Marriage Equality Bill. Simon Busuttil had called for ‘impact assessment’ studies on gay adoption before the Civil Unions vote in 2013. And during the divorce referendum in 2011, the ‘No’ campaign likewise complained that ‘not enough studies’ had been carried out to take an informed decision.

So for the rest of this article, I will be focusing on the (very widespread) misconception underscored by both Said’s comments.

Let’s start with the minor consideration, and get it out of the way. Just as Chris Said called for a ‘sociological study’ to help the PN understand why it languishes in such a sorry state today... the PN itself came out and said more or less the opposite. This is how it was reported on Monday: “The Nationalist Party will not be commissioning a report into the landslide general election loss, a PN spokesperson has confirmed […] Busuttil does not feel that there is need for such a report, as the party has already identified what mistakes were made during the last campaign.”

This raises a rather obvious question: what, I ask you, is the point of commissioning any kind of study at all... if the party is obviously not going to take any of its findings on board? Or, even worse, if it intends to do the very opposite of what the study recommends?

That is exactly what the PN did with its last post-election analysis report, drawn up back in 2013. Here are a few of that study’s findings: ‘The PN’s election campaign was too negative’; ‘The party lacked established candidates contesting on its behalf’; ‘The PN was perceived to be close to certain bloggers who made personal attacks...’ 

So of course, the PN’s natural response was: to make sure its 2017 campaign was even more negative and aggressive than the last; to attract the most off-putting and divisive candidates imaginable (Salvu Mallia, Josie Muscat, etc); and instead of distancing itself from the ‘certain blogger’ [Note: I find it rather fascinating that even the PN is evidently scared of mentioning her by name] the Nationalist Party allowed itself to become a mere extension of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s ‘personal attacks’.

Then they all pretended to be ‘surprised’ by an election result that had been spelt out to them, in no uncertain terms, four whole years before...    

Any particular reason to assume a ‘new’ sociological study, commissioned by the same party today, would turn out any different? After all, a ‘study’ can only ever tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. There is no actual obligation to implement any of its recommendations. On that level, it is literally worth no more or less than the paper it is printed on... though it may have cost thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) to compile.

This brings us to a second tier in the inherent uselessness of studies commissioned for political purposes. Said mentioned the importance of a ‘studied national plan’ for development, with particular relevance to high-rise. This may come as a surprise to him, but such studies have been carried out before... in fact, one had been commissioned by MEPA around 2010 (i.e., under the Nationalist administration, when he himself was a Cabinet minister).

Chicago-based expert Dr Mir Ali was flown in to carry out a study on the viability of high-rise buildings in Malta. His conclusions were, shall we say, discouraging. “MEPA should proceed slowly and take more time. Lack of a masterplan results in uncontrolled development and unpredictable impacts on urban life. Future tall building developments should not be considered without further planning and study of existing projects.”

The study emphasised that sites have to be selected in terms of availability of services; in addition to inadequate electricity, water, sewage and road infrastructure, Malta also lacks an efficient public transport system essential to successful high-rise projects.

So what did MEPA actually do with all this advice it paid so much (of our money) for? Why, the same thing the PN did with its 2013 electoral analysis, of course. The study didn’t tell them what they wanted to hear... so they just binned it, and carried on dishing out high-rise permits regardless.

So much for the value of commissioning ‘detailed scientific reports’ when confronted with any given phenomenon. Not only did the Nationalist government ignore the Ali report when proceeding with its own hyper-development drive... but the incoming Labour government in 2013 went a whole step further: it set about amending all the country’s existing laws to facilitate more high-rise development in future... without undertaking the necessary investment in related infrastructure, as recommended by the only people who actually know what they’re talking about.

If that were the only example, I’d say it was just a coincidence. But I greatly fear you will find the same pattern lurking behind practically any other issue you care to name.

Soon after 2013, for instance, the Labour government ignored all the expert advice it received (scientific and legal) about opening an illegal finch-trapping season, in defiance of European law. The Attorney General warned at the time that the initiative had no legal justification whatsoever, and that Malta could expect to lose any case brought against it in the European Court.

The government’s response? As with the PN’s electoral analysis and the Ali study of high-rise development... it ignored the Attorney General’s advice, simply because it didn’t chime in with its own political objectives. Instead, it sought an ‘independent legal opinion’; choosing a foreign legal firm over its own AG to present Malta’s case before the European Court of Justice.

Do I need to continue? Four years down the line, the European Court delivered an opinion which pretty much proves the Attorney General right, and the Maltese government wrong. And this time, the cost of ignoring expert opinion may go slightly beyond the expense of ‘commissioning a study’.

If Malta loses the ECJ case, it will have to reimburse the Commission’s legal expenses... on top of the extra expense already incurred by hiring foreign lawyers; not to mention the possibility of fines handed down by the court itself.

That is just a small part of the overall price we will have to pay for ignoring all ‘expert opinion’ that doesn’t match our own preconceived notions. There is also a credibility price-tag involved: I, for one, do not believe that the PN will abide by the recommendations of any future ‘scientific study’ it commissions today; just as any Maltese government, Nationalist or Labour, will invariably ignore all ‘expert advice’ that ever runs counter to its own political agenda.

So here is a small suggestion for all those Maltese politicians who still believe that ‘commissioning studies’ serves anything but a purely cosmetic purpose. Commission a ‘scientific study’ about your own party’s refusal to ever heed the advice of ‘scientific studies’.  I can predict some of its findings from now... but I won’t bother, because I know you’ll just ignore them anyway.

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