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Official statistics: How to engage the public

Posted on 02 March 2015 by Kirby Swales, Director of Survey Research Centre
Tags: stats

Trust in official statistics in the UK is relatively high, as is awareness of our very own National Statistics Institute ('NSI') - the Office for National Statistics. This reassuring news comes via a new report using findings from NatCen's British Social Attitudes survey, published last week. Nearly three-quarters of the public (71%) have heard of ONS and 81% of those who expressed an opinion trust the statistics that the ONS produce.

However, when it comes to public confidence in how these figures are presented the picture is not quite as positive. Little more than a quarter of people (28%) think that the government presents official figures honestly when talking about its policies. Even fewer (19%) think that newspapers present official figures honestly.

These findings confirm how important it is that independent organisations, such as the ONS and NatCen, are involved in the collection and presentation of data that help the public understand what is happening in the UK. This is especially true in the run up to the general election, when campaigns by all political parties will be using statistics to support their agendas.

Although some National Statistics are collected by ONS, some are collected by other organisations, such as NatCen, on behalf of the ONS and other government bodies. Many of these studies hold 'National Statistics' status and are subject to approval and scrutiny by the UK Statistics Authority. As such, they must abide by a set of principles to maintain the integrity and usefulness of the statistics produced. In addition to awarding ‘National Statistics’ status, the UK Statistics Authority has the power to revoke it, as it did for police recorded crime figures in January 2014.

Our research found that the public believes that the UK Statistics Authority has a vital role to play in ensuring that the production and presentation of official statistics is conducted in a transparent way. 84% of people think that it is important for an independent body to ensure that official statistics are produced without political interference and 86% think it is important for such a body to speak out publicly against the misuse of official statistics. This sentiment was echoed by NatCen’s chief executive Penny Young in a letter to the Guardian last month.

As well as being accurate, it is vital that National Statistics are useful and relevant to the people who want to use them. We often assume that users of statistics are primarily the professional research staff in government departments or think tanks but in fact this research shows that a quarter of all people (24%) have used or referred to official statistics for any purpose, such as work, study or personal interest. 

How can the voice and needs of this wider group of users be brought to bear on decision-making by those in charge of the National Statistics infrastructure? Perhaps a stronger commitment to consulting non-professional users about how statistics are collected and presented would change the way National Statistics are perceived. Our interviewers tell us that a clear and visible impact of research is the easiest way to encourage participation, so giving the public a voice on National Statistics will also help with collecting data.

The society in which we live has changed hugely in recent years, and National Statistics organisations need to adapt their data collection processes accordingly. Put simply, they need to ask the right questions. The pre-election campaigning so far has shown that public want to know how policies affect – and will affect – their lives. Meanwhile, NatCen has been involved in interesting work to incorporate the rapidly growing area of cybercrime into the Crime Survey.

Whatever happens, the pressure on research budgets in government is likely to increase – and the role of the UK Statistics Authority in promoting public-friendly data and speaking out against the misuse of statistics will only become more important.

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