In a report on Communicating Statistics released today, Wednesday 29 May 2013, entitled “Not Just True, but Also Fair” the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) recommends that departmental press officers and government statistics staff should work together much more closely to ensure that press releases give an accurate and meaningful picture of the truth behind the figures.
PASC Chair Bernard Jenkin said:
“In our evidence, we were given examples of where the change in one month’s figures, on say trade, or unemployment, would generate the headline, but where the trend over the year, a far more significant indicator, is ignored. We are expecting statistics officials to insist that press releases tell the true picture.”
The report underlines that to underpin good policy making, statistics must be presented in a fair, accurate way, "unspun". The Committee says that government statistics press releases do not always give a true and fair picture of the story behind the statistics, going too far to create a newsworthy headline.
The Committee says the ways that statistics are presented can be a challenge even for expert users. The lay user is left confused and disengaged. The Office for National Statistics website makes figures hard to find and statistics are often presented in a confusing way, for example, in formats which are not easily understandable.
Other recommendations include –
- The UK Statistics Authority should work proactively to bring together and clearly present key statistics, from numerous sources, around common themes or events, such as elections and referendums, as well as broader topics such as the labour market and economic trends.
- The ONS website must be improved. Government statisticians should work much more closely with different kinds of users in order to present statistics in ways which meet their different needs.
- The Committee says the Statistics Authority should find more creative ways of communicating statistics, for example, through interactive guides. This should be in addition to the publication of more raw data in machine-readable format for experts who want the full results, not just the edited highlights presented in releases for a mass audience.
- In addition to the many routinely-produced statistics, government statisticians produce thousands of pieces of data on demand, known as “ad hoc statistics”. This is positive, but more of this kind of data should be published proactively, rather than simply in reaction to requests.
Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Committee, added:
"Politicians tend to promote the statistics that best present their case. Finding the whole truth about government statistics is not always easy, and it should be. The numbers may be perfectly true but the act of selecting certain numbers distorts the true picture. This is important when those numbers are being used to justify a particular policy, a particular apportioning of resources. In some cases, spinning reduces the story behind the statistics to such an extent that the picture is no longer true.
The UK Statistics Authority and the Government Statistics Service have a special obligation to act as an antidote to the famous dictum that ‘there are lies, damn lies, and statistics’. Where the Chair of the Statistics Authority judges that there has been misuse of official statistics, we support his independence and his right to intervene. This is an important part of the role of the UK Statistics Authority, to monitor the use and abuse of official statistics.
Government statisticians need to do a lot more to fulfil the important role they play in explaining statistics as clearly and helpfully as possible. Wider and deeper improvements are still needed to the presentation and explanation of government statistics if public trust in them, and therefore in public policy, is to be earned and kept."