A chance to restore confidence in Britain’s official data

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Government spin is especially debilitating because government is a monopoly supplier of much of the information that an informed democracy requires.

When I looked for the detail of last week’s UK Budget, some gremlin took me, not to chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne’s plans, but to his Labour predecessor Alistair Darling’s pre-election proposals. These latter documents have vanished from the Treasury repository, and ought to be safely quarantined in the National Archives.

There is a difference of style as well as substance, and the difference of style may be as important in the long run as that of substance. The documents from the newly elected Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition revert to a traditional presentation style. You can get a flavour of the change by comparing the chapter headings. Instead of “maintaining macroeconomic stability” (sic), “supporting business and growth” and “achieving fairness and providing opportunity”, you now find a prosaic “Budget Report” followed by a section called “Budget policy decisions”.

I don’t think many people read these documents. But I have felt a professional obligation to do so for three decades. I first scrutinised them as director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the 1980s. Then, it was hard to persuade journalists, or opposition politicians, that our figures were as reliable as those produced officially.

But these perceptions have been reversed. No one looks seriously at government data if they have IFS estimates of the same thing. They believe the IFS tries to tell the truth, and government does not, and that judgment has generally been right.

It would be wrong to place the whole blame with one political party. The Thatcher government’s massaging of the unemployment figures began the steady erosion of the integrity of official statistics. But there is no doubt that the pace of decline accelerated after New Labour came to power in 1997, spurred by misleading descriptions of the government’s own financial affairs.

In 1998, the government sensibly committed itself to the “golden rule” – balancing current government expenditure and receipts over a cycle – and the “sustainable investment rule” – restricting debt as a percentage of gross domestic product. But when the Treasury began to spend amounts inconsistent with these principles, it engaged in off-balance-sheet financing. When these distortions were not enough, budgetary targets were reinterpreted to assert continued compliance.

The text, which used to be written in the measured prose of civil servants, began to resemble that of a second-rate public relations outfit. “Spending” was redesignated as “investment”, paragraphs were filled with vague terms of approbation – and endless repetitions of the words “stability” and “sustainability”. The overall tone was one of relentless self-congratulation.

Similar prose is common in corporate reports. But audit and listing requirements ensure that, when you get beyond the glossy photographs of the chief executive, the “world-class” products, and the illustrations of diversity of employment practice, presentation of factual information must conform to professional standards and legal obligations. Imagine if the chairman’s statement was all you got, and the chairman knew it was all you would get. Government spin is especially debilitating because government is a monopoly supplier of much of the information that an informed democracy requires.

But we do still have a democracy, and hence a new government. The newly created Office for Budget Responsibility offers an institutional mechanism for restoring honesty to the presentation of government finances. There is already a danger that it is seen as a forecasting group: its primary role should be to secure the integrity of financial information. It is, of course, easy to tell the truth about public finances, and avoid self-congratulation, when your first job is to expose the irresponsibility of your predecessors. But government documents should treat information and citizens with respect. Most civil servants would like to be allowed to do their job in a professional way. We should give them every opportunity and encouragement.

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