UK Statistics Authority and the Code of Practice have vital role to play in open government – Sir Michael Scholar

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The UK Statistics Authority has asserted that its guardianship of official statistics will be critical in the coalition government’s ambition of making ‘open government’ a reality, and highlighted the importance of the Code of Practice for Official Statistics.
Authoritative interpretations of official statistics, as required by the Code of Practice, are vital the Authority said. And it stressed “the value of good statistical commentary in enabling people more easily to challenge inaccurate statistical stories in the news media”.
Following suggestions that third parties could provide advice to users on how to interpret official statistics, the UK Statistics Authority said it sees “no alternative to government statisticians both continuing, and enhancing, their role in providing objective and impartial comment and guidance” on the data they publish.
While it “would aim to support developments” by “entrepreneurial individuals and companies”, the Authority said it is “clear that those third parties will themselves first need to understand the strengths and weaknesses, and the relevance and reliability, of the statistical data. And it is not clear to us that such third parties will necessarily be motivated by the requirement for objective interpretation and advice.”
The Authority chair, Sir Michael Scholar, made the comments in response to the Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) report, Change in Government: the agenda for leadership. The report says that unless the government can rapidly develop and implement a comprehensive plan for cross-departmental reform in Whitehall, the Government’s wider ambitions for public service reform, the Big Society, localism and decentralisation will fail.
Sir Michael’s letter to PASC chair Bernard Jenkin (pdf format, opens in new window) said the Authority welcomed the report’s recommendation that the Government needs to “explain how the public in general, and the user community of statistics in particular, will be empowered to use newly published information”.
It also concurred with PASC’s view that the UK Statistics Authority “should take a proactive role in ensuring that data released is intelligible, objectively interpreted and in a readily accessible format”. Sir Michael said the Authority had “always accepted that we must be proactive.”
He highlighted the constraints under which it operates, saying “individual government departments and agencies have the final decision in terms of what they publish. We cannot oblige them to commit expert resources to the preparation of professionally sound advice and guidance, beyond the very specific requirements of the Code of Practice.
“Currently the picture is mixed. Some statistical releases contain clear and helpful text and, in these cases, our goal is to help the producer body to ensure this text is easy to find, both in standard statistical releases and on websites where data are released in more wholesale formats. In other cases, the written advice at present falls short of doing full justice to the information content of the statistics. Here our goal is to support the National Statistician in offering the producer organisation help and guidance,” he said.
Sir Michael also expressed hope that the Cabinet Office’s report on the consultation on Open Data will recognise the importance of the work of government statisticians in providing impartial guidance.
Making Open Data real
The Authority confirmed its support for the Open Data policy in a letter about the consultation sent to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude (pdf format, opens in new window). It welcomed the Cabinet Office’s commitment to explore “how to ensure coherence in implementation between the Government’s agenda and the Code of Practice for Official Statistics” with the National Statistician.
The letter highlighted the requirement in the Code of Practice “that statistics be made available ‘in as much detail as is reliable and practicable, subject to legal and confidentiality constraints’, constraints which protect inter alia against the disclosure of personal information as proscribed by legislation.
“Normally we expect all data underlying official statistics to be published where this is practicable and does not put confidentiality at risk. Judgements about utility and reliability are, in our view, best largely left to users, as long as they are fully informed of the strengths and weaknesses of the data, which is another requirement of the Code of Practice,” it said.
Sir Michael confirmed support for PASC’s view that “transparency is not always or necessarily achieved merely by the publication of data”. Committing the Authority to maintaining standards, he said that so-called ‘data dumping’ “can be inimical to transparency and good government. It is the task of government statisticians, and a requirement of the Code of Practice, to produce official statistics which are intelligible, readily accessible, with objective and impartial commentary.”
He raised also the issue of the timing of publication of official statistics and of the data on which they are based. “Ideally both should be published at the same time,” Sir Michael wrote.
But departmental judgement was required when the statistics are drawn from administrative sources and it could be “appropriate to release the administrative records and some related summary material earlier where this does not compromise the release of the official statistics … If early release were to lead to a situation in which selective and misleading statistical summaries were being created by, for example, Ministers, their advisers, or third parties, ahead of the official statistics, we (and no doubt the issuing Department) would be concerned,” he commented.

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