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.