Openness and transparency in statistical releases

Last month, as you may recall, Jacqui Smith was in trouble for trumpeting apparently positive knife crime statistics, in a release of information described by the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, as “premature, irregular and selective”.

Sir Michael has now called for all statistics to be released simultaneously to “all sides of the political debate”. Currently ministers have a 24-hour headstart to prepare a response, and this is damaging public trust in statistics. The politics should start, he told the World at One, after the full release, and not while the final figures were still being prepared.

As a move towards transparency and openness in government this is, of course, hard to argue with. In a country with freedom of information legislation, it seems no more than a logical next step. The government’s reluctance to take up Sir Michael’s suggestion will publicly be put down to “national security” issues, but will in fact flow from the communications side, where there will be anxiety about losing control of the media narrative. And the Tories, as heirs presumptive, will share vicariously in this anxiety. Simultaneous release of statistics will mean the debate is shaped by the first party to make a compelling analysis that the media want to run with, rather than the party in charge.

All parties have clever eggs and dunces in their communications departments. Even if it did become possible for all sides to shape a media narrative from the off, there’s still no reason to think the Lib Dems could pull it off more than the law of averages would dictate. The effect from a party politics point of view would probably be negligable. But as an overall move towards fairness in politics and away from ancient deferential systems, this has to be a cause we should be publicly backing.

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2 Comments

  • David Heigham 3rd Jan '09 - 5:39pm

    If Ministers attempt to spin statistics, they often get into the same sort of mess as Jaqui Smith. That sort of mess is politically costly. It builds distrust in the whole Government in power. The reaction of commenators and electors is not distrust of official figures as such: it is distrust of figures produced by that particuar Government.

    I cannot recall any set of Ministers gaining real advantage by spinning the statistics. So why do they all insist on advance notice of the numbers? I think that it is because they and their civil servants (I was one) become paranoiac about being hit by unpleasant surprises of any kind. That may be understandable, but it justfies neither holding the statisticians’ best estimates away from the public gaze for even 24 hours, nor trying to seek party advantge out of using extracts from the statisticians’ unfinished work.

    Sir Michael Scholar is right, and must be supported . When Lord Moser was the boss Government Staistician, he once had to threaten resignation to stop Ministers meddling in the release of statistics. I hope Sir Michael will not have to do the same.

  • Agreed that it’s a worthy move. But mightn’t it turn out as follows?

    “Simultaneous release of statistics will mean the debate is shaped by the first party to make a compelling analysis that the media want to run with, rather than the party in charge.”

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