Standing up to misuse of statistics in a post truth world

Kerstin Hinds (Office for Statistics Regulation) on why the misuse of statistics must be challenged, to ensure that official figures can be used, and trusted, by us all.

I am writing 10 days after our Chair, Sir David Norgrove wrote to Boris Johnson about the use of statistics on EU contributions. It has been a good time to tell people I work for the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) and have them know what I mean – as I did at a University reunion last weekend. And it has been a time during which more people have contacted OSR with their own concerns about misuse of statistics. Both of these seem like good developments to me.

OSR exists to increase public confidence in the trustworthiness, quality and value of statistics produced by government. We do this in various ways, an important one of which is investigating and reporting publicly on complaints anyone can raise with us, about the use of government statistics in public life.

When examining cases, we refer to the Code of Practice for Official Statistics (Code) which sets out the standards expected (a consultation on changes to this has just concluded). Cases might be about whether the numbers are right; how they are presented; whether they are fairly described or how they are released into the public domain.

Whatever the issue, our focus is the same – promoting good use of statistics.

Last year we dealt with just under 100 cases. And our function covers the whole of the UK – as we recently advised the Scotsman newspaper.

I have looked at cases focused on equality of access to information – for example Home Office statistics being disclosed to the media in advance of their official publication and leaks of NHS accident and emergency waiting times data – both in clear breach of the Code which aims to create equality of access to such data.

In the lead up to the referendum on EU independence there were a number of cases related to access to information or clarity of presentation of statistics relevant to understanding EU migration.  A lack of clarity around the data being referred to in public debate was also behind a case on NHS funding and a lack of transparency on methodology behind a letter on statistics on air pollution. These are just a few instances I think demonstrate the importance of what we do.

While sending letters is important, it is particularly rewarding to see improvements as a result of our interventions.  I am pleased that this winter NHS accident and emergency waiting times will be reported differently to last.

I asked our Director General, Ed Humpherson who is involved in all the cases we investigate, where he thinks we add greatest value. His perspective is that by and large Government is trying to get it right and has a system – with Heads of Profession for Statistics and the Code of Practice – to try and ensure proper use of statistics. Ed believes our casework helps demonstrate the essential nature of that system and that it is not just a ‘nice to have’.

Personally I love the fact that in our ‘post truth’ world, there are government servants tasked with investigating inappropriate use of statistics, and people willing to ask them to do so. Should you come across a figure quoted which you think is not right – or have concerns that a figure that should be in the public domain is not, please raise this with us. A simple approach to [email protected] will get the ball rolling.

 

Kerstin Hinds heads up the OSR office in Scotland and is responsible for a programme exploring the public value of statistics on particular themes. She has been on secondment to the OSR since October 2015 from the Department for International Development. She previously worked on social surveys at the National Centre for Social Research and Office for National Statistics. To contact Kerstin please email: [email protected]

 

Views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence. Remember you can join us (it’s free and open to all) and find out more about the how we champion the use of evidence in social policy and practice.