Communicating statistics: Not just true but also fair - Public Administration Committee Contents

2  Finding official statistics

5.  In its written evidence to us, the Statistics Authority expressed a view common to most evidence submitted to this inquiry:

The Statistics Authority starts from the perspective that official statistics are collected and managed at public expense and must justify that expenditure by contributing as much as possible to decision-making in all parts of society and the economy. However, official statistics can only do that if those who need to use them know that they exist, can find them when they need them, and can understand their relevance and utility.[3]

6.  Producers of official statistics, including the ONS and government departments, will generally publish their statistics on their own websites. Two sites bring together official statistics: the National Statistics publication hub brings together first releases of accredited National Statistics, while is a more general site for public data releases.

7.  The Statistics Commission, the predecessor of the Statistics Authority, undertook two research projects into the ease of access to public statistics. In its detailed report resulting from these projects, published in June 2007, it set out eight principles of statistical dissemination, as listed in the box below.[4] Many of the findings of that report have been echoed in evidence to this inquiry.

Principles of statistical dissemination, Statistics Commission, June 2007

1  Statistics are collected to be used and as wide a use of them as is possible should be encouraged.

2  UK government statisticians should adopt an exploratory and experimental approach to dissemination and access to statistical data through the Internet.

3  Government departments that publish official statistics should seek the full involvement of other web professionals in the presentation of statistical data on their websites.

4  Government departments that publish official statistics should recognise that web design and web culture are still developing and should set up an appropriate mechanism to keep accessibility issues under review.

5  User needs, interests and capabilities should determine the design and operation of statistical dissemination over the Internet.

6  Statistical products should be specifically designed for the Web.

7  Data should be presented in a layered or hierarchical way to allow users to drill down to the level of detail they desire.

8  There should be one point of entry - a government statistics portal - giving access to official statistics across the UK government and those of the devolved authorities.

8.  The ONS website has long been a subject of complaint by users. It was redeveloped in 2011, but many users of statistics still report problems in finding the official statistics they need. This point was frequently made in the written evidence to this inquiry. The Market Research Society wrote "It is not easy to find data on the ONS website or publication hub. Making it easier would be the single greatest contribution to better access and communication".[5] The Statistics Users Forum told us "All too often it is extremely difficult even for the expert user to find the statistics they need from the ONS and departmental websites. Search engines leave much to be desired - most users rely on Google".[6] Chris Giles, Economics Editor at the Financial Times, talked us through the laborious process through which he - even as an expert user - had gone through to find the answer to the question "is unemployment now higher or lower than it was in the mid-1990s?"[7]

9.  Jil Matheson, the National Statistician, and Andrew Dilnot, the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, told us that they recognised the picture painted by our witnesses, and that the website was poor and had got worse following redevelopment in 2011. Andrew Dilnot said that the "relaunch of the ONS website [...] was not one of our greatest moments, and at that time the website became difficult to use, difficult to navigate, difficult to search".[8] Jil Matheson described the website relaunch in 2011 as "really disappointing", and stated "I am a user of the [ONS] website as well as responsible for it and I share that frustration".[9] She added "There have been improvements, but the improvements that are there now are only part of a process. There is more to come [...] this is an ongoing development programme".[10]

10.  Although the issue of effective dissemination of statistics has been thoroughly explored, including six years ago by the Statistics Commission, progress has been slow. The ONS website and its relaunch in 2011 is a disappointment but we welcome the acknowledgment by the ONS of the problem. We note that they have undertaken to make substantial improvements to the website. Further improvements should be made as soon as possible to make the website accessible to ordinary users. We recommend that the ONS report progress to us and publish the report on the ONS website. We recommend the ONS also publish its plans for future improvements on its website. We recommend the ONS systematically seek and publish the views of users in order to inform further improvements to the functionality and presentation of official statistics on the ONS website.

11.  There are many places in which official statistics are published; this is confusing to both the regular and the occasional user. The relationship between, departmental websites and the ONS website is not clear. We recommend that the National Statistician review, update and adopt the principles set out by the Statistics Commission in 2007 and urgently take a greater role in sign-posting users to different groups of statistics. The Statistics Authority should publish information on how relates to other websites showing government statistics.

3   Ev 50 Back

4   Statistics Commission, Report No.34 Data on Demand - Access to Official Statistics, June 2007 Back

5   Ev 33 Back

6   Ev 44 Back

7   Q 48 [Mr Giles] Back

8   Q 90 Back

9   Q 93 Back

10   Q 93 Back

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Prepared 29 May 2013