Today we published the UK Statistics Authority’s Annual Review of Casework 2019/20.
In the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) we champion production and use of statistics that serve the public good. To do this we need to understand the issues the public are interested in and be aware of concerns you may have about data published by government. Our casework plays an important role in providing this insight. To identify areas where we may need to take action, we consider issues raised with us – including by the public, user communities, the media and politicians – and monitor media and social media.
In a period dominated by unexpected events, including a snap general election, EU Exit and the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen data and statistics increasingly sought after and valued. The link between published data and decisions which impact our lives has never felt so direct. Each week the Government’s coronavirus dashboard gets millions of hits, users of the data will have a range of questions. Perhaps trying to judge how confident they feel to go to school or work, or let grandchildren spend time with their grandparents. Or perhaps trying to make an assessment of when the pandemic will be over. To quote another OSR blog, we have become armchair epidemiologists.
In this context, it is vital that data and statistics produced by government are trustworthy and provide answers to society’s most important questions. OSR’s ability to draw on input from so many users of data is invaluable. Whether through direct correspondence with us or our monitoring activity. It helps us identify priorities and focus our efforts on statistics that serve the public good. So alongside publishing our annual review of casework we want to thank all those who raise concerns with us and highlight some of the changes which have only been possible through our combined desire to see improvements.
The focus of our recent casework can be broadly split into three priority areas: Transparency, Clarity and Insight.
When statistics and data are used publicly by ministers or officials to inform parliaments, the media and the public, they should be published in an accessible form.
There has been a need to share information more widely to inform decisions in response to the pandemic, with huge efforts being made by analysts to meet the increased demand for timely management information or analysis. As a consequence there is an increased risk of unpublished information being quoted in public – where this has happened we have had formal and informal approaches to support transparency and make the case for publication of data. For example:
- it is now the default for datasets to be published alongside the slides and transcripts from Government’s coronavirus press conferences
- in January 2020 the Department for Education published its first official statistics on school funding
- The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government published information on the number of rough sleepers and homeless people helped during the pandemic following our intervention
- Public Health England started publishing Local Authority level data on number of positive cases of coronavirus
- Department of Health (NI) started publishing more accessible data
It should be clear what the data does or does not cover, and what conclusions can be drawn from the data.
When concerns around misuse of data are raised with us, they often come about because of a lack of clarity. This could be in the way the data are published or how data have been used by public figures.
During the 2019 General Election much of our work focused on clarity and supporting improved clarity. For example we made an intervention to clarify how to interpret statistics about violent crime used by the leader of the Labour party and we clarified use of youth unemployment rates quoted by Scottish Government.
We also produced guidance for statements about public funding – to help those reading public funding announcements and encourage those producing or supporting statements to ensure statements are clear.
Statistics need to cover the topics which are most important to society. Producers of statistics must help people understand what the numbers mean for them.
Through our casework we get a sense of where improvements could be made to aid understanding. This could be gaps in the data available or a need for more coherent and joined up outputs.
At the start of the pandemic it was clear that a lot of new data were being produced, but people were struggling to find the information they wanted. We worked with producers of statistics to highlight the issues identified through our casework. While there will always be more we want to see there have undoubtedly been huge improvements. For example, in June 2020 Sir David Norgrove wrote to Matt Hancock outlining concerns about COVID-19 testing data. Since this letter we have seen consistent developments to the Test and Trace Statistics which now provide more insight, and are clearer on their purpose and how they fit with other available information.
The 2019 general election and the coronavirus pandemic have provided us with opportunities to learn lessons and make improvements. We more regularly use casework to inform broader statements that can drive wider improvement and we have built stronger relationships with producers of statistics so we can support improvements more effectively. We have continued to need to balance speed of response with the time it takes to reach an informed judgement.
But perhaps most importantly, the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the value of getting input from you as users of data. Our team alone cannot monitor all production and use of statistics and data by governments across the UK, but by drawing on your experiences we can more effectively support a statistical system that is trustworthy and produces statistics that serve the public good.
So if you have any feedback or would like to highlight a concern, please get in touch!