Event report - The RSS at the political party conferences

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In autumn 2013 the Society held a series of events at the Labour and the Conservative party conferences in Brighton and Manchester respectively.  As part of our efforts to strengthen the public facing role of the Society, and underpinning the strategic goal of promoting the public understanding and benefit of statistics for the public good, we partnered with Ipsos-MORI and the Alliance for Useful Evidence to run three fringe events at each conference, with a number of key panel members, including MPs from both political parties.
The first session covered the role of evidence in policy making, the second session discussed big data and open data for economic growth and better public services, and the last session of the two days debated the role of opinion polls in public debate. For a full outline of the programme and speakers, see the Labour conference events here and the Conservative conference events here.

The lunchtime sessions in Brighton and Manchester covered the topic of the role of evidence in public policy making. After hearing about some data on the public's perceptions on policy issues from Ipsos MORI, Jill Rutter from the Institute for Government discussed the issues on both the demand and the supply side of evidence, saying there are issues with the way public policy makers use (or ignore) evidence, but she stressed that equally there's an issue with the supply side, where academics don't always provide research which is relevant to policy questions, and often takes too long. In Manchester, Geoff Mulgan (Nesta) who chaired the debate, amplified this by stressing the Alliance for Useful Evidence had the clue in its name - it's about providing useful evidence, relevant to policy makers.

Bernard Jenkin MP discussed the strong 'elasticity' between the conception of an actual policy and the implementation of it - which meant that very often the reasons and / or evidence for the policy were obfuscated in the implementation on the ground. And in Brighton, Angela Eagle MP stressed that evidence is just one piece of the puzzle in terms of policy making - values and beliefs are equally important. This was pretty much the thread of both debates: no-one would want policy solely to be based on technocratic decision making, but all agreed evidence needs to have a place at the table.

The first of the evening fringe sessions we held covered the topic of big data, open data and opportunities for economic growth. Ben Page and Bobby Duffy from Ipsos-MORI introduced the topic and showed us how new types of data (such as mobile phone transactions) can offer fascinating insights in human behaviour, but also discussed some opinion data which showed the general public is still fairly concerned about data privacy (and the older generations more so than the younger generations). Nigel Shadbolt, Chair of the Open Data Institute discussed the huge opportunities but also the challenges in the open data agenda - including quality issues and the skills base to handle data. In Brighton, Kelvin Hopkins MP also stressed importance of skills - and said that from the early start a solid primary education in data handling is essential to build the nation's statistical skills base if we want to generate growth from big and open data. The skills issue was echoed by Chris Yiu (Policy Exchange) who said that in his view public servants need to have proper statistical skills to be able to ask the right questions.

Heather Savory, Chair of the Open Data User Group, agreed on the huge potential for open data to generate economic growth, but stressed that the single most important obstacle right now is the lack of an open, freely available geospatial referencing structure - pointing to some of the trading funds (Royal Mail, Ordnance Survey) as the key players to open up this type of data. To address the issue of data quality, she also stressed that the open data movement can be beneficial to data quality: multiple users will be able to spot the critical quality issues and be able to improve the data - providing there is some feedback loop to feed back these improvements.

The final session at both party conferences debated the role of opinion polling in public policy. Again some intriguing polling data from Ipsos-MORI showed us the public's appreciation of opinion polls is not all that negative - and the public can be wrong on many issues, as previously discussed in our Perils of Perception debate. In Brighton, Stella Creasy MP said that the complexity around explaining the uncertainty in data and statistics (for example confidence intervals) were not always easy to embed in public policy debate. In Manchester, Ed Cox (IPPR North) made the case for a stronger regional focus on poling data - the aggregate data for the country don't always tell the local story. Peter Lilley MP discussed the tension between the general public telling politicians (via opinion polls) what they think, and cases where politicians feel they need to change public opinion to convince them of their political case - which was often easier said than done. And to finish off, he revealed that as a young man he passed three of the RSS professional exams.

Paul Marchant, a member of the RSS Council who attended some of the Manchester events, said: 'It was gratifying to see the issue of statistics being taken seriously in a political context'. Hetan Shah, RSS Executive Director, said: 'Overall the six events we ran were attended by well over 250 people, and managed to raise key issues from the world of statistics to a wider political audience. In particular we were able to discuss questions about the use of data in policymaking, the skills shortages in data handling, and the weaknesses of UK education in promoting quantitative skills.’

As well as holding our own fringe events we were able to engage with influencers at other events, including asking Francis Maude MP about his views on the future of the census, raising with John Cridland (director of the CBI) the need to develop an industrial strategy around ‘big data’ and talking with the researcher for Shabana Mahmood MP (Shadow Science Minister) about science policy and where the mathematical sciences fit within this.

Bernard Jenkin Labour Party Conservative Party Angela Eagle Peter Lilley Heather Savory Nigel Shadbolt Kelvin Hopkins Ben Page Stella Creasy

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