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


4  Statistics on demand

33.  Producers of Official Statistics will generally produce simple statistical tables on request, as long as these do not cost too much time or money to produce; these are known as "ad hoc statistics". More complex analysis or data may be provided and sometimes at a fee. ONS alone responds to around 13,000 requests each year for additional analysis or tables.[35]

34.  There is some suggestion from users that the provision of data and tailored analysis can be problematic. In their written evidence Full Fact wrote:

Ad-hoc requests for data are dealt with inconsistently by the ONS. Sometimes staff will respond with data immediately, sometimes a request will be diverted into the FOI [Freedom of Information] process and at other times we must submit an FOI request to get any headway. From the outside, there appears to be little consistency in, or explanation of, the reasons for these actions.

...Of particular concern is that we have had topical requests turned into FOI requests, which are slow to process. It seems to us that requests which would illuminate a current topic of public debate should be prioritised.[36]

The Market Research Society wrote:

Ad hoc output has not been very significant for commercial users. The technical process of producing such output has had limitations, timetables can be long and uncertain, definitions used in official statistics may differ from those used elsewhere, statistical disclosure control tends to restrict detail, and poor value for money may discourage commissions.[37]

35.  The release of statistics and data in this way is part of a wider Government agenda to be more open with the information it holds. We were told by Nick Hurd MP that there was now "more transparency and accountability around the process [of applying for and generating ad hoc statistics]" and that the Government "takes some pride [...] in trying to establish a reputation for being the most transparent Government ever".[38] In June 2012, the Government published its Open Data Command Paper, stating "we are determined that all of us can reap the benefits of transparency and data sharing in the future".[39] We have undertaken to look at the issue of open data in more detail as part of our programme of work on statistics and their use in government.[40]?

36.  Andrew Dilnot told us that "of course people want more access and more responses. The best thing would be for our website and our data release to be such that the number of ad hoc requests fell because people had direct access themselves, and more and more that is the case. More and more of our data are being published in an accessible form, in an electronically accessible form, and we want to go further down that road [...] one of the very first acts that I took was to agree that we would publish much more of the outcomes of these ad hoc requests than we used to".[41]

37.  Finding information which has been released under an ad hoc request is also not straightforward. The ONS website lists such information in a number of different locations: under Freedom of Information, published ad hoc data, data available on request and the publication scheme. These are not easily searchable. Only a small proportion of the 13,000 requests annually appear to be published.

38.  The fact that so much unpublished data sits in Government naturally leads to a steady flow of requests for information which in turn puts the statisticians under avoidable resource pressure. Government statisticians should aim for the best practice that has been adopted in other parts of the public sector, namely to publish anything that can be put in the public domain. It would be expected that requests for additional data would fall sharply as, over time, less and less would rest hidden waiting to be requested.

39.  We welcome the efforts made by the Statistics Authority to be transparent with ad hoc requests for data. However, the way in which such requests are processed and presented are still a cause for concern by users. We recommend that the Statistics Authority review the ways in which statistics and underlying data are drawn up and communicated, and that it draw up expected standards for ad hoc data which government departments should be expected to comply with when publishing statistical information, which should be in formats which meet users' needs.


35   Letter from Andrew Dilnot, Chair, UK Statistics Authority, to Will Moy, Director, Full Fact, 18 April 2012, published on www.statisticsauthority.gov.uk, Reports and Correspondence Back

36   Ev 46 Back

37   Ev 33 Back

38   Q25, Q28 Back

39   HM Government, Open Data White Paper Unleashing the Potential, June 2012 Back

40   See www.parliament.uk/pasc under Inquiries - statistics Back

41   Q124, Q125 Back


 
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Prepared 29 May 2013