A better way to restore faith in official statistics

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Independence for national statistics requires more than frequent repetition of the word independent.

British official statistics have never fully recovered from the 1980 Rayner report. Derek Rayner suggested that the purpose of government information was to serve the needs of government. His experience was drawn from Marks and Spencer, the retail company where he had been managing director, and the model in his mind was a management information system. But ministers are not managers and their needs are often for propaganda rather than facts. Accurate public information is a prerequisite of democracy.

Government statisticians are honest people and do not make numbers up. But the increasingly acute problems of official statistics are all familiar from private sector accounting.

Whenever accountants and statisticians establish rules, private companies and government departments manage their affairs in line with their letter rather than their spirit. The most egregious example is devices that take long-term liabilities off the balance sheet. Those used in the British government’s private finance initiatives have essentially the same structure as devices used creatively at Enron.

Statistics may be misused in contexts other than those intended. The value of health services increases as incomes rise and it can be argued that this increases the value of health output even if outcomes and procedures are unchanged. This statistical adjustment provides no basis whatever for claims that the National Health Service is more efficient. But the assertion grabs a headline, and it is only much later that pedantic journalists and academics can discover what is actually going on.

Such misrepresentations are now common. Decentralisation of responsibility for the production of official statistics, a product of the Rayner years, has created a two-tier system. Statistics produced by the Office for National Statistics, which operates to internationally agreed criteria, are of higher quality than those produced by departments. Loss of confidence in official statistics is common to the public at large and among professional users, who recognise specific instances of abuse.

These professional users gave a cautious welcome to the government’s announcement last year of independence for the ONS. But the consultative paper that followed suggests that this announcement itself was puffery not fact. The proposal could not even in principle address the main issue – the declining quality of departmental statistics – unless responsibility for these figures was given to the ONS, an option firmly rejected. The document also rejects all specific suggestions for greater independence made by bodies such as the Statistics Commission and the Royal Statistical Society: separating statistical information from political statements, reducing access by ministers to new data before their release, giving parliament a defined role in the appointment of the National Statistician.

We are expected to derive confidence from the recategorisation of the ONS, a government department responsible to the Treasury, as a non-ministerial department subject to the oversight of a ministerial department, not specified but expected to be the Treasury.

The proposed strengthening of the board of the ONS might improve its management but the effect on independence depends on whom the government appoints. There are few grounds for optimism. The most substantive proposal in the white paper is the abolition of the Statistics Commission, which reviews all government statistics, and has made itself unpopular with government by proving itself robustly independent.

If the government were serious about independence for national statistics, then there is a readily available model in the National Audit Office, which has complementary responsibilities. The head of the office is appointed jointly by parliament and government and reports directly to an assertively bipartisan parliamentary committee.

The equation of independence for statistics with incessant repetition of the phrase “independence for statistics” is faintly Orwellian. When a man tells you frequently how honest he is, keep hold of your wallet.

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