Reflections on using statistics to better understand our world: an interview with Jil Matheson

Written by Oz Flanagan on . Posted in Features

Jil Matheson has spent over 30 years in official statistics, beginning as a graduate trainee in the then Office for Population Census and Surveys (which merged with the Central Statistical Office to become ONS), and ending with her five year tenure as national statistician. Since retiring, she has remained engaged with how statistics reach us every day. One of the new challenges she recently took on is to chair an independent panel to examine how the BBC treats statistics on behalf of the BBC Trust.

The BBC Trust regularly runs these impartiality reviews for the national broadcaster. Science received attention in 2011, but this is the first time that statistics has received a full review. Jil says, ‘what we will be looking at is the output of BBC News, its use and reporting of statistics and whether the BBC gives its audience a broad and balanced view of the issue it’s reporting on.’

Also sitting on the panel will be Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and former editor of The Times, Peter Stothard. The next president of the RSS, David Spiegelhalter, will also be involved as an advisor.

The review won’t be published until summer next year, but we wanted to hear Jil’s thoughts on the current state of statistical reporting across the wider media landscape. ‘The use of numbers across the media has increased a great deal, and that’s not surprising given the amount of data that's now produced. My perspective is that, some of it is done well, some of it not, but the importance of getting this right needs to be understood throughout the media. They have a responsibility to help their readers understand the data and statistics that are all around us,’ she says.

To that end, Jil is an advocate of training journalists to be able to interpret and communicate statistics. In her view it’s important for journalists to know ‘what questions they should be asking when confronted with a set of statistics. When they aren’t specialists themselves, how do they interpret the numbers and how do they view them with a certain degree of scepticism. Finally, who do they go to for advice and help?’ she asks. ‘In many ways the media has a tough task of interpreting what gets produced for a broad audience, so there is a responsibility on producers to help them do that.’

The statistician using their voice

In Jil’s mind, creating a relationship between statisticians and journalists is essential for this to improve. ‘I think it’s really important for journalists to speak directly with statisticians and develop that long term relationship. It’s not just about being able to query a particular release - it’s about really understanding where the statistics come from and what their long term trend is. So when the next release comes out, the journalist is applying some background knowledge to their reporting of it.’

The ONS has been increasingly active in providing its own commentary on new statistical releases, whether it’s baby names or cancer survival rates. She says that this is a natural progression because ‘the statisticians are the ones who are closest to the data and should be the first to give an overview of that data. They can’t cover it all, and shouldn’t attempt to cover it all, but having those initial high level findings analysed and explained directly by the statistician is a fundamental part of their role. Because who better to explain the data and explain it impartially?’

If statisticians are to truly be the first to introduce new statistics, it will require the end of pre-release access. The RSS has long being seeking to end the practice whereby government ministers obtain new official statistics before they are made available to the wider world.

Jil remains adamant that this needs to end. ‘The first voice heard should be the impartial analysis of the statistician. The public’s mistrust of statistics often comes about because the first they learn about statistics is from the voice of a politician.' She continues, ‘ending pre-release has the capacity to remove that problem of trust, because statistics will be open equally to everybody at the same time. If a minister has access in advance and time to get their response in order – when nobody else has had that opportunity – that doesn’t appear reasonable to me.’

The legacy of national well-being

One of the most important developments in official statistics during Jil’s tenure was the development of national well-being measures. Although Jil stresses that this is not all that new, ‘there is actually a long history of statisticians, economists and others trying to understand how quality of life is faring, before it was pulled into this overall concept of well-being.’

The new impetus arrived following the release of the Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi report and the subsequent political will that emerged. Central to this was the recognition that ‘measuring the progress of society only through GDP is not enough, it doesn’t tell you what the impact is on different groups in society,’ as Jil says.

She goes on, ‘with this new push to bring data together in a holistic way, we can now see not just how the economy is doing, but how households, families and the environment are faring.’ The big challenge for well-being measures is whether they can dislodge GDP from its pedestal of importance in the public mind. But Jil remains upbeat, ‘I’m amazed at how far it’s come.’

In her mind, this alternative to GDP is starting to gain traction in politics and the media. ‘I think it’s already changing. But of course it’s only over time that it gets really interesting. In some ways, one of the most interesting questions will be about how the different generations will fare. But I think people are taking it more seriously now that there are some international comparisons beginning to appear. So it’s starting to be part of our understanding of how we are doing as a country.’

The importance of developing statistics beyond the UK

Jil also retains a keen interest in the progress of the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the essential role that statistics will play in them. ‘One of the lessons from the Millennium Development Goals was that politically they were very important, but a lot of countries had difficulty in measuring the goals and those problems were only considered very belatedly.’

However, she believes that those lessons have been learned and ‘statisticians across the world have been trying to communicate the need to ensure that the SDGs measurement issues are addressed much earlier. And they have been, there’s been a lot of activity from the beginning in giving the goals measurable indicators.’

This goes much deeper than the design of goals though. ‘The inclusion of this [measurable indicators] is the recognition that many countries will need wholescale investment in their statistical systems. This is where I think a lot of pressure will be needed on governments to ensure that the investment happens.’

She says that this pressure has to focus on individual governments to create enduring progress in their statistical systems. ‘Some of the problems in that past have been where capacity building is only partial or only focussed on the specific objectives of the donor organisation, for understandable reasons. But that won’t necessarily leave a legacy of infrastructure that can be developed and built on for other objectives, that needs political will.’

She continues, ‘one of the classic examples is the number of countries that don’t have birth and death registration. In our part of the world we consider it to be fundamental to our statistical systems. But without that, understanding the basics of population, death rates or infant mortality is a real challenge. So the SDGs are an important opportunity for governments and international agencies in the developed world to create a real push to address some of these basic shortcomings.’

Capacity building is important, but what about the independence of those systems once they're built? ‘The independence of statistical systems is absolutely fundamental,’ Jil says. ‘How else can the statistics be trusted? One of the legacies of the economic crisis in Greece is the need for a strong and independent statistical service, and that is true across many countries.’

Jil makes the point that the structure of official statistics in the UK has received attention from other countries looking for a model on how to achieve this. As she says, ‘keeping that distance from politics is central to avoiding uncertainty and doubt because of a lack of transparency and autonomy.’

Official Statistics Office for National Statistics (ONS) Jil Matheson

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