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

3   Presenting and explaining statistics

Presenting statistics

12.  Users of government statistics are a very diverse group —from expert analysts, journalists and civil servants, to Members of Parliament and members of the public. Evidence to this inquiry suggested that current modes of communication assume too much homogeneity within the user group and that focus is on some stakeholders to the detriment of others.[11] The Social Research Association stated that:

More needs to be done to make official statistics accessible to a wide range of audiences. The user community is wide and diverse, ranging from analysts requiring the latest economic data for modelling work to a member of the public wanting to know the size of population of their town or village so a range of access routes are needed which assume different levels of knowledge and expertise.[12]

13.  We were told that the form in which government statistics are currently presented is often quite limited. Witnesses suggested that statistics should be presented in a range of forms. The Statistics Users Forum told us that they were working with the National Statistician's Office "to develop best practice guidelines for user engagement" and that:

Access arrangements should accommodate the requirements of the full range of levels of expertise among users: open data formats for those whose main aim is to use official statistics for secondary analysis, modelling, etc, through to simple tables and charts with informative commentary for the lay audience whose main aim is to be informed about trends in society and the economy.[13]

Full Fact suggested in their written evidence that:

The goal of publishing official statistics should be to ensure that users can get the information they need, in its full context, in the most convenient way. In particular, it should strive to present a coherent statistical picture in important or contentious areas of public debate. This entails different things for different users, which might be met in some of these ways:

  • Graphically-led presentations such as graphs and maps.
  • Web pages using links to bring the full picture into view (suited to the increasing proportion of mobile internet users).
  • PDFs, easily downloaded and printed, with full background and interpretation in one place.
  • Spreadsheets for those who want raw data.
  • In due course, interactive tools.

At the moment, official statistics are primarily presented in PDFs and spreadsheets, which seem geared toward more technical users.[14]

14.  Both the Statistics Authority and ONS were clear that they saw effective communication of statistics as being central to their roles. Andrew Dilnot told us that communication was "a high priority" for the Statistics Authority, and explained in written evidence that the Authority was starting a programme of work to help to improve the communication of statistics and related advice to users:

Earlier this year, I convened a workshop to review how a series of ONS statistical releases could be better communicated to users. In light of that, the Authority has established, on a pilot basis, a 'good practice team' which will assist the statistical service more generally in developing and implementing improvements to current communication practices.[15]

15.  Jil Matheson was aware of shortcomings and said "we have to improve in lots of ways".[16] She also told us of a number of planned improvements and that there was a new division in ONS called the public policy division, "whose aim is explicitly to be sensitive to the wider public debate and what the issues are and how statistics can be presented to inform that debate".[17] The Statistics Authority's statement of strategy, published in February 2013, states "in support of the National Statistician's vision for the GSS, the Authority will support and champion the role of departmental statisticians in effectively communicating statistics and in providing statistical advice for users".[18]

16.  We welcome the Statistics Authority's programme of work to improve the communication of statistics across government. In particular, we welcome the creation of a public policy division in ONS. We recommend that the Statistics Authority publish information on the work of this team.

17.  We are pleased to note that the Statistics Users Forum has been working with the National Statistician's Office to develop best practice guidelines for user engagement, although these guidelines are not yet published and so we cannot comment on their content. We recommend that ONS disseminate and promote the best practice guidelines, as soon as possible, throughout Government. We recommend that the Statistics Authority and ONS, together with government departments, work much more closely with different kinds of users of statistics in order to present statistics in ways which meet their different needs.

18.  As well as suggesting improvements to the presentation of statistics, written evidence suggested that more needs to be done to bring statistics together. Hard copy annual and monthly compendia, on topics such as "Social Trends", "Financial Statistics" and "Economic Trends" have been discontinued, a decision which Andrew Dilnot told us was taken "in the face of cuts [...] after some consultation with users".[19] He added "The serendipity that used to come from these compendia is important, and I am pretty sure that the National Statistician also shares the Chairman of the Authority's slight discomfort at this decision".[20] Some Members of this Committee also share this discomfort.

19.  There is therefore less attempt than in the past to coordinate the presentation of statistics where they pertain to a wider topic, such as inflation or health, or an event, such as those statistics relating to Scottish independence or the proposed referendum on the UK's membership of the EU. The Royal Statistical Society wrote that:

A deeper communications challenge for the official statistics service is to present a coherent statistical picture of what is going on in areas where debate needs to concentrate on the issues rather than on explaining particular statistics. The debate on Scottish independence is an example where statistics need to be brought together and well communicated in order to foster good debate.[21]

The National Statistician suggested to us that government statisticians successfully did just this following the riots which started in Tottenham in 2011.[22] Although we welcome in principle all efforts to communicate statistics more coherently, it is unclear why this topic was chosen for special treatment.

20.  The ways in which statistics are presented sometimes present a challenge even for expert users. The lay user is left confused and disengaged. We recommend that the Statistics Authority work proactively to bring together and clearly present key statistics, from various sources, with associated commentary and in printable format, around common themes or events, such as elections and referendums, as well as broader topics such as the labour market, economic trends and so on. This is especially important given the ending of hard copy compendia on such topics.

21.  We recommend that the Statistics Authority continue to explore 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 the mass audience.

22.  Evidence also suggested there was a disconnect between producers of statistics, interpreters of statistics and audiences for statistics. Witnesses told us that, given limited resources available, frequent users of statistics would prefer fewer, but better presented statistics. In their written evidence Full Fact suggested that:

To standardise and improve ONS releases, many of which are poorly written, all should be sent through a desk of sub-editors and the communications office before publication. The Norwegian equivalent of the ONS employs journalists full-time. They work closely with statisticians to produce public-friendly press releases. While this system might not translate perfectly into the UK, the Committee could certainly look to this model as inspiration for what can be achieved when communication is made a first-class part of a statistical office's task.[23]

23.  The Statistics Users Forum stated in their written evidence that:

Many users obtain official statistics through the press, broadcasters, social media, and other secondary sources. The Government Statistical Service (GSS) could do more to help these mediators to disseminate statistics, through presenting them in simple formats with informative explanations to which links can be made. This would not only widen the use of official statistics but would also improve the accuracy with which they are reported.[24]

24.  Whilst cautioning against seeking "eye-catching headlines" or seeking "maximum coverage", Andrew Dilnot told that "we need to employ journalistic skills" although not necessarily employ journalists. The National Statistician suggested to us that in future, very well-explained statistical releases could form the news release.[25]

Explaining statistics

25.  There is a difficult balance to be struck by those responsible for communicating statistics between, on the one hand, explaining statistics in a way which is useful to the different user groups, and on the other, appearing to jeopardise their impartiality by providing the wrong sort of commentary. The Statistics Authority's overview report on its own statutory assessment of Official Statistics between 2009-2012 found that more could be done across the statistical service to communicate statistics and their limitations to users:

One common pattern we found was a degree of inhibition among those who write the commentary in statistical releases (which are in effect statistical press notices) that accompanies the publication of official statistics. Government statisticians are acutely aware of the political implications of their work and are concerned to maintain a hard-won reputation for impartiality. The pressure from the Authority and others to include in statistical releases advice about the main messages from the statistics, and advice about the uses of the statistics and their strengths and limitations, may seem to some statisticians to risk exposing them to the charge of making politically loaded comment. However, saying nothing about the strengths and limitations of the statistics is not necessarily politically neutral either; it may also lead to misinterpretation by the news media and users. The Code of Practice thus takes a clear line that strengths and limitations of the statistics must always be explained clearly.[26]

26.  Witnesses suggested to us that the ONS did not properly explain the implications of statistics; sometimes the press releases were misleading and gave a "true but not fair" picture.[27] Chris Giles gave us an example of an ONS press release about trade statistics: the headline of the press release highlighted the most recent increase in the UK deficit in trade in goods and services, and did not explain that, taking into account the past trend in the trade deficit, the real story behind the figures was in fact "Britain's trade deficit [...] remained broadly stable".[28] Because the ONS did not properly explain the figures, the media coverage suggested that the story was that the trade deficit had massively increased, which was very misleading.[29]

27.  Producers of government statistics do not always present their figures in the clearest way, sometimes going too far to create a newsworthy headline, when the true story is more nuanced. Government statistics press releases do not always give a true and fair picture of the story behind the statistics. We recommend that press officers and statistics producers work together much more closely to ensure that press releases give an accurate and meaningful picture.

28.  Will Moy, Director of Full Fact, thought that the National Statistician and Heads of the Statistical Profession in individual government departments should have a higher public profile in explaining important statistics.[30] In written evidence, Full Fact stated:

When it comes to government departments, it can be hard to get hold of statisticians, and conversations mediated through either press officers or freedom of information officers are less likely to be fruitful. Government Statistical Service personnel should be exempted from the requirement that officials do not speak to the media. Their names and telephone numbers should appear on statistical releases.[31]

29.  The Statistics Authority told us that "ONS policy is to provide direct contact details for lead statisticians on all published Statistical Bulletins".[32] The number of broadcast media interviews conducted by ONS statisticians has also risen in recent years, from around 20 in 2008 and in 2009, to around 300 in 2012, with about a further 100 in that year on the census.[33] Other ways in which government statisticians communicate statistics include:

  • Quarterly GDP 'live' broadcast briefings to accompany the publication of the preliminary release of data;
  • Advanced media training of statisticians who are experts in topics including the labour market, retail sales and public sector finances;
  • Growth in 'short story' formats and articles which are designed to be of particular use (and re-use) by journalists;
  • Use of BBC Radio's General News Service to deliver multiple local radio interviews across the UK; and
  • Pro-active engagement with the BBC Economics and Business Unit, Sky News, ITN, C4 News and others.[34]

30.  The improvements to be made to the presentation and explanation of statistics reach beyond the written document. A "public face" to statistics would help enhance trust in the figures and encourage their use. A fear of appearing politically biased sometimes means producers of statistics are reluctant to explain them properly. We welcome the fact that more staff in ONS were presenting their figures to the media, and by extension, the world beyond. Producers of statistics - in both the ONS and across government departments - should be bolder in ensuring that statistics are presented with a factually-accurate, but helpful explanation.

31.  We recommend that the Statistics Authority take the lead across Government in coordinating the effective presentation of regularly- and occasionally-produced and key statistics in relation to high profile topics or events. The National Statistician should raise her public profile to promote statistics and their value without fear of appearing politically compromised, and go further to encourage other government statisticians to do the same .

32.  We recommend that all Government Statistical Service press releases and statistical statements have named contact points of people with an in-depth understanding of the statistics in that release.

11   For example, evidence from the Market Research Society (Ev 1), Social Research Association (Ev 3), Statistics Users Forum (Ev 4) and Full Fact (Ev 7) Back

12   Ev 38 Back

13   Ev 39 Back

14   Ev 46 Back

15   Q102, Ev 50 Back

16   Q100 Back

17   Q117  Back

18   UK Statistics Authority, Statement of Strategy, February 2013 Back

19   Q 94 Back

20   Q 93 Back

21   Ev 44 Back

22   Q 117 [Ms Matheson] Back

23   Ev 46 Back

24   Ev 39 Back

25   Q 109 [Ms Matheson] Back

26   UK Statistics Authority, Monitoring Report, The Assessment of UK Official Statistics 2009-2012, August 2012 Back

27   Q 82 [Mr Giles] Back

28   Q 62 Back

29   Q 62 Back

30   Q 60 [Mr Moy] Back

31   Ev 46 Back

32   Ev 58 Back

33   Ev 58 Back

34   Ev 58 Back

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Prepared 29 May 2013