Building public trust in official statistics

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Report from one of the sessions at the RSS 2017 Conference. More reports of conference sessions are listed here.

David Matz, who chairs the RSS Official Statistics Section, introduced this session discussing trust in official statistics.

Ian Simpson from NatCen began the session with findings from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, which revealed that the ONS was more trusted than many other public bodies. However, much work remains to be done in raising public trust in how official statistics are used, as a mere 26% of respondents felt Government presented official figures honestly and only 18% felt the media did so.

These findings were followed by an overview of the proposed refreshed Code of Practice for Statistics, presented by Job de Roij from the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) – an independent arm of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA). Job explained that the OSR’s primary aims are:

  • To enhance public confidence,
  • To challenge misuse and
  • To ensure the correct collection and development of statistics.

The refreshed Code of Practice helps to achieve this with its three pillars: trustworthiness, quality and value, which are underpinned by key principles. Although the code is aimed primarily at official statistics, the principles of good practice extend beyond this. An official consultation on the proposed code is currently ongoing and the new code will be released in early 2018, including an interactive version.

Roger Halliday, the chief statistician for Scotland and chief data officer for the Scottish Government, emphasised that the entire aim of making statistics independent is to establish trust. He summarised five key actions to achieve this:

  • Statistical excellence and expertise coupled with understanding of the policy context, to ensure the best decisions are made for the public good.
  • User engagement to ensure that statisticians understand the data sources and users of statistics understand the underlying analysis. The award-winning Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation  is a prime example of this.
  • Keeping distance from political influence – this puts statisticians in a position of power and responsibility.
  • Raising public confidence in data handling by minimising risks of data loss and ensuring data are shared and used only for the public good.
  • Educating ministers and journalists in the proper use of published statistics.

Iain Wilton (RSS director of policy and public affairs) kicked-off the discussion by thanking the speakers and expressing gratitude to the UKSA on behalf of the RSS for the proposed new Code of Practice. Iain highlighted that the appointment of RSS statistical ambassador Robert Cuffe to the role of BBC head of statistics is a positive development and recalled RSS’s recent successful campaign to stop pre-release access to ONS official statistics, wondering whether the next BSA survey results might be influenced by this change.

Deana Leadbeter of the Statistics User Forum highlighted a number of challenges to establishing public trust in official statistics, which have been flagged up in discussions with users. These include:

  • Responsiveness: users are more likely to trust data that are relevant and accessible to them, and expert users have more confidence in the data if they can see their comments being taken into account.
  • Complexity and detail: there is often pressure to simplify statistics by presenting a single figure, but the reality in which the user lives is more complex. If the single figure (e.g. an average) doesn’t correspond to the user’s personal experience, the full clear picture is needed to build trust.
  • Fairness and openness: if users find data access challenging and perceive it to be less so for others, this leads to feelings of distrust.

Questions from the audience covered a range of topics including journalists’ attitudes to the 09:30 release of official statistics, the pros and cons of pre-release access for statistics, the results and technical details of the BSA survey, trust in health statistics from NHS England and the necessity to bring the concept of uncertainty more prominently into explanations of statistics.

This session was titled: Trust in official statistics

An open discussion event is being held on 21 September – ’Ensuring Public Confidence in Statistics: Consultation on the new Code of Practice‘ with Ed Humpherson and Penny Babb (UKSA), hosted by the Official Statistics Section and National Statistics Advisory Group. To respond to the consultation on the proposed changes to the Code of Practice for Statistics, follow this link. The consultation is open until 5 October 2017.

Join the Official Statistics section’s mailing list.

Copies of presentations from the session can be downloaded:
Ian Simpson slides (.ppx)
Job de Roij summary (.doc) and slides (.ppx)
Roger Halliday summary (.doc)

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