The public life of numbers

Modern policymaking is increasingly reliant on numbers, as all kinds of quantified evidence are used in every stage of the process in introducing, framing, comparing, evaluating and ranking alternative options. Over the past few centuries, there has been a shift from decisions made solely on moral or value judgements, to decisions made on the predictions of statistics.

In Australia, our increasing demand for statistics is tied to public advocacy for more evidence-based policymaking from policymakers and researchers alike. However, while statistical techniques have been crucial in improving the lives of their studied subjects, these technologies originating in accountability and transparency become powerful tools used to control populations and define how we think about certain issues. 

Though there is a growing field of research on the social effects of quantification, little is known regarding specific factors at work as certain statistics dominate policy debate. I intend to research comparative case studies in contemporary Australian public policy in order to investigate how the type and subject of statistics affect how they become dominant in debate, and how recalculations of certain statistics reveal the values and motives of particular groups. 

This will be done through thematic text analysis of policy and media documents, and a series of semi-structured interviews with those who work to produce and promote such numbers.