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Baby Boxes: a post-script

April 18, 2016

I wrote this post yesterday about the SNP’s announcement that every child in Scotland would have a baby box. I wasn’t necessarily against it, but there was something about the way it was justified that left unanswered questions – especially the way it was being claimed as an efficient way to reduce cot deaths, when these are already very low (around 20 a year).

There was one issue I missed, however.

Late yesterday The Baby Box Co. suddenly re-tweeted something from a discussion between a few (I hope they’ll forgive me this) un-high-profile people in Scotland about the proposal. No hashtags were involved. The company was therefore evidently taking quite a close interest in Scottish twitter activity about this. So I had a look at them.

The Baby Box company (details here) is “headquartered in Los Angeles, California with offices in UK, Australia, Canada, Ukraine, and Singapore.” It “is the first company to offer traditional Baby Boxes to consumers outside of Finland and is proud to share this special, lifesaving tradition with parents worldwide.” Also, “As of January 2016, The Baby Box Co. is working with government agencies, hospitals, tribes and non-profits in 20 U.S. States to distribute Baby Boxes for free to as many American families as possible. The Baby Box Co. also works globally on significant  initiatives; we have programs launching in 12 countries so far.”  They appear to be largely responsible for all the activity reported by the BBC here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35834370. If you look carefully, you’ll see many of the sample pictures from projects round the world accompanying the article are supplied by the company.

Boxes typically cost at least $100, pre-shipping, though it also does substantial wholesale discounts.  The company seems to be associated with the sort of strong claim made for an association between boxes and reduced cot death.

There are other companies supplying these boxes, it appears, but according to the BBC article  (and a bit of googling) not many.  The Baby Box Company is the only one I can immediately see who offers wholesale – this Finnish company is much dearer and appears to be retail only. This British one is cheaper, but again seems to operate on a smaller scale. This leaves me wondering: what, if any, commercial marketing activity has been directed at the SNP or the SG?

Yesterday’s post was a slightly baffled attempt to make sense of what seemed an oddly-justified announcement. Today’s is a reminder that just because the product has pictures of giraffes on it, is to do with babies and the idea originates in Finland, doesn’t mean the normal rules of commercial interest can’t still apply, and we shouldn’t ask the usual questions about who stands to profit, as part of understanding the origins and merits of a proposal.

It’s particularly striking that the proposal as reported is straight to a national scheme, not a smaller-scale pilot, as (according to the BBC) is being tried in London. That will immediately limit who can bid to those who can supply tens of thousands of units a year. That would be worth a lot to any organisation. Once it’s a high-profile manifesto commitment for the party which everyone knows is going to win the election, probably with an absolute majority, the course may be pretty much set.

No-one, I want to stress, is being accused here of doing anything wrong. Firms lobby for their products – it’s what they do and it’s normal. Politicians or their advisers  can be genuinely persuaded about a product. But if several million pounds of public money is going to go in this direction rather than any other, and there’s very few organisations, maybe only one, who could fulfill the commitment, I suggest it’ll be particularly important that there’s a bit of boring old cost-benefit analysis before any final decision to proceed is taken and any contract is let, however high-profile the manifesto commitment, particularly when the underlying rationale is, as in this case,  a bit confusing.

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