3 Presenting and explaining 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.
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
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.
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
- 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
- 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
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. Jil Matheson was aware of shortcomings and
said "we have to improve in lots of ways".
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".
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".
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
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
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".
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.
The National Statistician suggested to us that government
statisticians successfully did just this following the riots which
started in Tottenham in 2011.
Although we welcome in principle all efforts to communicate statistics
more coherently, it is unclear why this topic was chosen for special
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. 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
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. 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. 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
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".
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.
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.
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.
29. The Statistics Authority told us that "ONS
policy is to provide direct contact details for lead statisticians
on all published Statistical Bulletins".
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.
Other ways in which government statisticians communicate statistics
- Quarterly GDP 'live' broadcast
briefings to accompany the publication of the preliminary release
- 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.
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
Ev 38 Back
Ev 39 Back
Ev 46 Back
Q102, Ev 50 Back
UK Statistics Authority, Statement of Strategy, February 2013 Back
Q 94 Back
Q 93 Back
Ev 44 Back
Q 117 [Ms Matheson] Back
Ev 46 Back
Ev 39 Back
Q 109 [Ms Matheson] Back
UK Statistics Authority, Monitoring Report, The Assessment
of UK Official Statistics 2009-2012, August 2012 Back
Q 82 [Mr Giles] Back
Q 62 Back
Q 62 Back
Q 60 [Mr Moy] Back
Ev 46 Back
Ev 58 Back
Ev 58 Back
Ev 58 Back