Saturday, January 3, 2009

Lies, Damn Lies, And Statistics

Ministers should not be shown official statistics before they are released, government statistics chief Sir Michael Scholar has said.

People did not trust official figures and thought politicians were "able to get at them", he told the BBC. Ministers are currently allowed to see official statistics 24 hours early, to allow them to prepare their response.

No, Michael. That is not the reason people don't trust statistics. It seems perfectly reasonable to me for the Government to see this information in advance, so long as they can't then put pressure on the ONS to change them!

Having time to look at the latest statistics, understand them, and prepare a response is simple good administration. If ministers found out at the same time as the media, then the onslaught of questions would be met with a "we'll get back to you". Newspapers wouldn't be able to publish a 'thought out' Government response, but only perhaps a hastily produced soundbite. Is it not actually more rigorous journalism to report on the official 'thought out' response alongside the analysis, since that reflects the true state of the Government. A mealy-mouthed non-answer soundbite tells the electorate nothing of substance.

It is vital that the statistics authority is independent of the forces of the Executive branch of Government. It is also vital that statistics are produced to a high quality and that they have credibility and are trusted widely. Perhaps improving direct accountability of the authority to Parliament, and allowing Parliament to appoint the Director, might improve public confidence?


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