The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) has warned that government statistics press releases ‘do not always give a true and fair picture of the story behind official statistics’, in its report Communicating statistics: Not just true but also fair (opens as pdf).
‘Politicians tend to promote the statistics that best present their case. The numbers may be perfectly true but the act of selecting certain numbers distorts the true picture,’ said committee chairman, Bernard Jenkin MP. ‘In some cases, spinning reduces the story behind the statistics to such an extent that the picture is no longer true.’
The committee highlighted the importance of public trust in the statistics used in evidence for public policy to the broader issues of trust in the integrity of public policy and of government accountability.
PASC has recommended closer working between departmental press officers and government statistics staff to ensure that ‘press releases give an accurate and meaningful picture of the truth behind the figures’.
The committee also called for improvements to the Office for National Statistics’ web site, saying that ‘as well as being hard to find, statistics are often presented in a confusing way’. It also urged the UK Statistics Authority to find more creative ways of communicating statistics, such as interactive guides.
PASC backed the Authority’s role in monitoring the use and abuse of official statistics. ‘Where the Chair of the Statistics Authority judges that there has been misuse of official statistics, we support his independence and his right to intervene,’ Bernard Jenkin said.
Roeland Beerten, RSS director of professional and public affairs, commented that the Society endorses the report’s findings. ‘They reflect many of the Society’s long-held concerns in relation to the ease of access to official statistics, and the need for independent, clear and comprehensive comment,’ he said. ‘Although we recognise there have been some recent improvements in access and communication we welcome the report’s recommendations as they will help both expert users and the general public in finding the statistics they need.’