Exploring the value of statistics for the public

In OSR (Office for Statistics Regulation), we have a vision that statistics should serve the public good. This vision cannot be achieved without understanding how the public view and use statistics, and how they feel about the organisations that produce them. One piece of evidence that helps us know whether our vision is being fulfilled is the Public Confidence in Official Statistics (PCOS) survey.

The PCOS survey, which is conducted independently on behalf of the UK Statistics Authority, is designed to capture public attitudes towards official statistics. It explores trust in official statistics in Britain, including how these statistics are produced and used, and it offers useful insights into whether the public value official statistics.

When assessing the value of statistics in OSR, two of the key factors we consider are relevance to users and accessibility. The findings from PCOS 2021, which have been published this week, give much cause for celebration on these measures, while also raising important questions to explore further in our Research Programme on the Public Good of Statistics.

Do official statistics offer relevant insights?

PCOS 2021 shows that more people are using statistics from ONS (Office for National Statistics) now compared to the last publication (PCOS 2018). In the 2018 publication of the PCOS, 24% of respondents able to express a view said they had used ONS statistics, but this has now increased to 36%. This increase may be due to more people directly accessing statistics to answer questions they have about the COVID-19 pandemic. In our Research Programme, we are interested in knowing more about this pattern of results and also understanding why most people are not directly accessing ONS statistics.

Are official statistics accessible?

PCOS 2021 asked respondents if they think official statistics are easy to find, and if they think official statistics are easy to understand. These questions were designed to capture how accessible official statistics are perceived to be by members of the public. Most respondents able to express a view (64%) agreed they are easy to find. This is an important finding because statistics should be equally available to all, without barriers to access. Most respondents able to express a view (67%) also agreed that statistics were easy to understand, suggesting that two thirds of respondents feel they can understand the statistics they want to.

However, respondents who were aged 65 or older were least likely to agree with these two statements. Statistics serving the public good means the widest possible usage of statistics, so this is an important finding to explore further to ensure that older respondents are able to engage with statistics they are interested in. In our Research Programme, we will work to identify what barriers might be causing this effect and whether there are other groups who feel the same way too.

The value of statistics

Considering how the value of statistics can be upheld, respondents in PCOS 2021 were asked to what extent they agree with the statement “it is important for there to be a body such as the UK Statistics Authority to speak out against the misuse of statistics”. The majority (96%) of respondents able to express a view agreed with this statement, with a similar number (94%) agreeing that it is important to have a body who can ensure that official statistics are produced free from political interference. While we are cautious about putting too much weight on these two questions in the survey, these findings may at the very least indicate the public value the independent production of statistics, as well as challenges to the misuse of statistics.

In conclusion, PCOS 2021 suggests that statistics are relevant and accessible to many members of the public, but there are still some who do not access statistics or consider them easy to find or easy to understand. While the findings of PCOS 2021 offer a wealth of important information, and demonstrate the value of official statistics, it is clear there are still a lot of questions to explore in our Research Programme. We will continue our work to understand what statistics serving the public good means in practice, guided by knowledge from PCOS 2021.

What do we mean by ‘statistics that serve the public good’?

‘The public good’ is a phrase which you might not have come across before. When I first joined the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) nearly two years ago, I had no real idea what it meant, but I knew that it was something very important to OSR; something which was mentioned in nearly every meeting I went to. What I know now is that OSR’s vision – that statistics should serve the public good – is fundamental to all that my colleagues and I do.  

So what is serving the public good? It means that statistics should be produced in a trustworthy way, be of high quality, and provide value by answering people’s questions: providing accountability, helping people make choices, and informing policy. As statistics are part of the lifeblood of democratic debate, they should serve a very wide range of users. When they meet the needs of these users, they serve the public good. 

But needs can change quickly, and statistics can be used in ways that also do not serve the public good – precise numbers can be used to give a misleading picture of what the statistics actually say, too much weight can be put on statistics, or they can be described incorrectly.   

At OSR it is our job to support confidence in statistics. Having a really strong understanding of what it means for statistics to serve the public good is crucial to this.   

Over the last 22 months, I’ve been leading a research programme aimed at doing just this, as existing research on understanding public good is relatively sparse.  

My first step in exploring public good was to publish a literature review which explores the current evidence on public good. We have also analysed how researchers think their research will provide public benefits and we are currently running studies to explore what members of the public and our own team think about the public good.  

A key theme coming from this research is the importance of being able to communicate statistics in a way that is understandable to everyone who is interested and needs to be informed by them. This is not an easy thing to do. Statistics potentially have many different audiences – some people may confidently work with statistics, whereas others may not have much experience of statistics, but want to be able to understand them to help make decisions about their lives.  

Differences in how people understand statistics are often attributed to an individual’s literacy or numeracy abilities – we often hear the term “statistical literacy” when this type of understanding is being talked about.    

We think it is wrong though to think of statistical literacy purely in terms of a deficit in knowledge. Rather, we think that producers of statistics need to understand what people find easy to grasp and what they find counterintuitive and think, “How do we work with that to make sure that the real message of the statistics lands properly?” It is our role in OSR to guide producers to do this.  

To help us with this, we will be kicking off some new projects this year aimed at increasing our understanding of how different segments of the public regard statistics. 

The public good may seem like a mysterious concept but, by working to build the evidence sitting behind the phrase ‘public good’ and understand how the statistical system needs to respond to meet it, we are hoping to make it much less so.  

We hope that our research work, which we are undertaking in collaboration with others, will not only highlight the role that statistics play in the choices that people make and the risks to the public value of statistics in a changing environment, but also that publicly researching this area will stimulate others with the capacity and expertise to work in this area.