Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Figures Don't Lie, But....

The NY Times has an interesting take on the crime statistics dust up-and raises the question of just how reliable the figures coming out of City Hall really are: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, an engineering major in college, has never been shy about proclaiming an unerring faith in statistics...But what if the data were somehow skewed?"

What if indeed-and it all comes down to the level of trust says the Times: "That question has emerged as one of the by-products of a survey conducted by two criminologists that has raised doubts about the integrity of the New York Police Department’s highly regarded program to track crime known as CompStat...Still, the results have made critics and admirers of Mr. Bloomberg wonder about — if not necessarily doubt — the reliability of data underpinning policy decisions on the budget, education, transportation, public health and other issues."

Which leads to the credibility issue: "The mayor should get credit for trying to put those systems in place,” said Doug Turetsky, a spokesman for the city’s nonpartisan Independent Budget Office. “But this is an important reminder that while statistics offer a vital window into how well services are being performed, whether we’re talking about crime rates in precincts, or successes in schools, or cleanliness of the streets, they’re not necessarily a perfect measure. They’re subject to all sorts of potential biases and pressures.”

Yah think? And, of course, it's always education that comes front and center when cooked books are being discussed: "Of all Mr. Bloomberg’s policies, though, education has been much more of a flashpoint than crime when it comes to statistics. The mayor and Joel I. Klein, the schools chancellor, have generally succeeded in getting their way on major policies, including the reauthorization of mayoral control last year. The administration has also been praised by President Obama and Arne Duncan, the education secretary, for its data-driven approach."

Only because they have been able to either buy or bogart all of the potential opposition-and have the local press shill so as to, "hide the decline," to coin a phrase. Could we be seeing the beginning of a crisis of confidence?

Norman Siegel dramatizes this point: "A lot of the parents and teachers were calling me and telling me that the data are not accurate,” Mr. Siegel said. “So the question immediately becomes, is the data that’s now being used by the Bloomberg administration being manipulated to produce a result-oriented policy decision? It’s early to tell how much it could affect Bloomberg’s reputation and his legacy, but it does create some concern, and there’s potentially a cloud of uncertainty.”

Heaven forfend! But it's time to get a second opinion. And, as our old adviser tells the Times, the questioing of the mayor's management acumen goes to the heart of all things Bloomberg: "At the same time, if more people second-guess policies that are closely associated with the mayor, he may have less political room for error, given that he just won a third term by a narrower margin than anticipated. “This could be a red herring or it could be a P.R. disaster,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a political scientist at Hunter College. “And this is a moment where, because of the budget crisis, the accuracy of the mayor’s data becomes a critical thing.” He continued: “If it’s perceived as a scandal, I think it has the potential of making him look like all mayors and not as the hero of skilled modern management. It all depends on the nature of the reservoir of goodwill that the mayor has.”

We could be reaching a Chico Marx "lying eyes" moment. Can't wait to watch all of the unraveling.