Safeguarding statistics on behalf of the public
Sir David Norgrove welcomes the first Annual Review of UK Statistics Authority Casework.
Today, the UK Statistics Authority published the first Annual Review of Authority Casework. This looks at all the times the Authority has commented publicly about the use of statistics in the past year. It’s a piece of work that has been done each year, but this is the first time it has been published.
In October last year the Authority published the Interventions Policy (pdf, 195KB). This sets out the principles for how the Authority thinks about whether and when to intervene.
It falls to me to intervene when official statistics may have been misused by a public figure. (You may remember a letter regarding some numbers on the side of a bus…) When I choose to criticise, it is because I expect – and the public expects – those people or organisations to do better.
Other issues mostly arise in relation to compliance with the Code of Practice for Statistics, which was refreshed earlier this year. These are generally managed directly by the Office for Statistics Regulation, with the Director General for Regulation, Ed Humpherson, addressing concerns and recommending improvements.
This year’s report shows that, over the last few years, the amount of casework received has remained fairly stable. 2017/18 was no exception, with 85 issues investigated by the Authority.
The misuse of statistics accounted for 40% of casework last year. Interventions on misuse are usually the ones which receive the most attention, particularly when politicians are involved. One of the great strengths of our system is that an independent body can speak out when statistics are misused. I have spoken previously about the Authority’s role here, and that we should not become a referee of public debate. But where statistics are misused or presented in a misleading way, public debate can become distorted. We would be doing the public a disservice as a regulator by not speaking out where we see this sort of distortion.
The thematic breakdown of cases gives an indication of some of the more complex or contested subjects of public attention. 26% of casework was in relation to health and social care. You only have to pick up a newspaper to see how much public health and the NHS are dominating the public conversation. Education and the economy were also common themes. Statistics guide and support both debate and policy making in these areas that are so important to all of us as citizens of the UK.
With all the justified concern about “fake news”, it is more important than ever that statistics are used responsibly, and that the public can have trust in those statistics. The casework process is one of the ways in which we will continue to safeguard statistics for the public good.