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

Conclusions and recommendations

Finding official statistics

1.  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. (Paragraph 10)

2.  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. (Paragraph 11)

Presenting statistics

3.  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. (Paragraph 16)

4.  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. (Paragraph 17)

5.  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. (Paragraph 20)

6.  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. (Paragraph 21)

Explaining statistics

7.  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. (Paragraph 27)

8.  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. (Paragraph 30)

9.  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. (Paragraph 31)

10.  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. (Paragraph 32)

Statistics on demand

11.  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. (Paragraph 38)

12.  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. (Paragraph 39)

Misuse of official statistics

13.  Where the Chair of the Statistics Authority has judged that there has been misuse of official statistics, we support his independence and his right to intervene. We are grateful to both the current and former Chairs for their role in upholding the integrity of government statistics and in therefore striving towards achieving higher levels of public trust in government statistics. It would be prudent, given the controversy of the areas in which the Authority intervenes, to reduce the scope for future misunderstandings, if the Authority set out why it chooses to intervene publicly on some issues and not on many others that are raised. (Paragraph 44)

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Prepared 29 May 2013