Credible statistics that command trust are an essential public asset and the lifeblood of democratic debate. Statistics should be used to provide a window on our society and the economy. The value of data lies in its ability to help all in our society – from members of the public to businesses, charities, civil servants and Ministers – understand important issues and answer key questions.
The launch this week by the Cabinet Office of the Ethnicity facts and figures website is, in this context, a substantial achievement.
The website provides data from across Government departments on how outcomes from public services vary for people of different ethnicities. Some of this data has previously been published and some not. The website highlights many disparities in outcomes and treatment from public services. Specialists in particular areas – such as health, housing, and criminal justice – may have been aware of some of the data but few will be familiar with all of it.
What makes the Ethnicity facts and figures website so valuable is that it draws together detailed information from across government, and presents it accessibly, neutrally and dispassionately, onto a website – and all the data can be downloaded. What’s striking is that the website isn’t that flashy in its use of visualisations and other data tools. It presents the data, and describes them clearly and succinctly. Doing this, it provides a clear picture for visitors to the website.
This reflects the huge effort put into asking people what they want from the website – including members of the public, academics, central and local government, NGOs and open data experts.
This really is a model for how all statistics should be developed: find out what questions people across society want to answer, and figure out how best to present the data to them. It shows how Government departments could do much more to publish data with the public users in mind – rather than simply publishing data in the way they always have done. Focusing on the public users opens up the opportunity for innovative ways of presenting statistics.
So in my view this website is already starting to add value. But it’s also clearly still under development – there’ll be more data added to the website, and other refinements as the website responds to the ways people are using it. And no doubt it will open new avenues for research and policy intervention: the website makes information available for the public to ask the question ‘why?’. That’s the first step to understanding.
And there’s one further thing to celebrate. Alongside the Ethnicity facts and figures website, the Cabinet Office has published a Statement of Compliance with the Code of Practice for Statistics.
Though the website draws on official statistics, it is not itself an official statistics publication (though it could be in the future) – for example it didn’t follow the standard approach to publication that we expect of official statistics. Here the Statement of Compliance is really helpful as an exercise in transparency. It’s clear on the judgements and process that have gone in to developing the website and recognises that it doesn’t follow the Code’s publication protocols.
And the Statement draws strength from the draft Code’s three pillars – trustworthiness, quality and value – and explains how the work has been done using the pillars as a framework.
This is in effect the first example of what we call voluntary compliance – using the Code not as a statutory obligation but as a best practice guide.
On this voluntary approach, as in much else, the Ethnicity facts and figures website is an exemplar.