The state of the statistical nation

Written by David Walker on . Posted in Features

How time flies. We’re already moving into that phase in the political cycle when attention focuses on Westminster and the next general election. There are plenty of other things going on – the small matter of the UK’s future, for example let alone the UK’s (or rest of the UK’s) membership of the European Union – but for the political class and media the question for the next year or so is whether the electorate will reward the incumbents or eject them.

Thoughts turn to the Cameron record. Statisticians in their infinite variety will have their own differing views on the government’s performance on tax and spend, welfare migration and the rest. But on the professional agenda, how might the coalition score?

The quango cull spared the UK Statistics Authority, that’s a plus. The Office for National Statistics faces budget cuts and the Government Statistical Service has to cope with staff cuts and pay restraint. Similarly for professionals employed in local government and arm’s length bodies. But things could be worse; cuts would doubtless have been made under any alternative administration. Under Cameron the architecture of official statistics remains in place.

The future of the decennial census was being questioned before Labour left office in 2010. Even if austerity had been a few degrees warmer, statisticians would still have had to make the case, within Whitehall as well as publicly, for protecting and privileging data collection when policy and delivery functions are under strain. So far, ministers have not insisted basic statistical work be outsourced to private firms. Outside health there are not yet any equivalents to Dr Foster, a private company that has become a principal statistical agency for the NHS.

The Cameron government’s record on evidence is mixed, to put it mildly. It abolished the citizenship survey conducted by the Communities Department, despite the evidence it provided on public participation in volunteering: so much for the 'Big Society'.

Embarrassing data has been expunged: it is now harder to track the closure of Sure Start Centres. Michael Gove has made use of ‘surveys’ with zero validity. Iain Duncan Smith has played fast and loose with benefits data. To save money, the Valuation Office Agency stopped collecting land price statistics. The proposed privatisation of the Land Registry could contaminate property data.

On a positive note, and unexpectedly, the Cameron coalition has celebrated data as an economic, social and political good. ‘Open data’ has been pushed in legislation and administrative practice. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, talks up big data and (outside security and defence) wants the state’s data mines excavated and exploited.

Another government would probably have pushed data extraction and sharing in primary care in the NHS, but perhaps with less enthusiasm and, given the minefields around GPs’ surgeries, political bravado. Science minister David Willetts has warmly backed the Economic and Social Research Council’s attempt to corral and interrogate administrative data both for what it can say about social dynamics, and as a partial remedy for declining participation in sample surveys.

But Tory ministers (the Liberal Democrats have not had much of a data profile) also have, as they say, an agenda. Open data is a means of attacking ‘big government’. As interpreted by the likes of the communities secretary Eric Pickles, the game has been about winkling details of spending out of councils and public bodies, to embarrass them as wasteful and spendthrift, if possible on the front page of the Daily Mail.

When he took office, Pickles extolled ‘armchair auditors’. Sitting at their computer screens these citizen heroes would rummage through long municipal lists of figures. With them on the job, why do we need the expensive Audit Commission to interpret and analyse the data?  Off with its head, Pickles said. (I am a former director of the now abolished commission.)

For other ministers, the cascade of public sector data was supposed to fuel start-ups and web entrepreneurs, who would create apps to sell back to the public information about property, bus times and crime. Some of that has happened. But the government’s data model has also been shown to have a hole in its middle.

It’s a void into which statisticians themselves can also sometimes fall. Data is dumb. Numbers say nothing by themselves. Data collection in and of itself is pointless. First, the numbers need assurance testing. Can we, for example, rely on police numbers for crime? Not really, says the UKSA – but could HM Inspectors of Constabulary do more to validate them? The government has taken care to assurance test the big economic numbers, creating the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, but elsewhere there is an institutional gap. There’s grey territory between the ONS and the National Audit Office, with no one quite clear whose job it is to ensure data is valid.

To turn data into information, let alone ‘evidence’, you need two parties. On one side analysts, statistically literate, who are attuned to the policy agenda and on the other officials and political leaders who are interested in the interpretations, even when they are counter intuitive or critical.

In this pre-election period, the appetite for ‘difficult’ evidence is weak, on the part of ministers and senior civil servants. Will the statisticians and analysts in government service, already wracked with worries about prospects, pay and pensions, muster their courage and insist on their interpretations of the data, even when they are unwelcome?


The views expressed in the Opinion section of StatsLife are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Statistical Society.

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