The Code Pillars: Trustworthiness is about doing things differently

Trust can seem a no-brainer. It may seem so obvious, that of course it matters. It has often featured as the guiding aim of many a strategy for statistics.

I spend much of my time explaining about the Code of Practice for Statistics and our three pillars. I think of Quality as being the numbers bit – getting the right data, using the right methods. I think of Value as being why it all matters, making sure to serve the public and society. And Trustworthiness? Well, Trustworthiness for me is a lot like reputation – as Warren Buffett once said:

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

So, the Trustworthiness pillar is about ‘doing things differently’ – for analysts and their organisations. You can’t expect just to be trusted – you must earn it.

You have to behave honestly and with integrity – you can show that in the way that you use numbers. Anyone who spins data to make themselves look good, or cherry picks the numbers that tell the best story, will reveal themselves to be untrustworthy. But those that set out the facts plainly and objectively will be seen as someone to be trusted.

How you handle data and show respect to people and organisations giving their personal information can also prove that you are a safe pair of hands. But if you are seen to lose people’s data, or share it inappropriately, you’ll probably find people are not willing to share their information with you again.

And the way you release information matters – if you give any sense of being under the sway of political opportunism, the credibility of your statistics will be harmed.

So why isn’t the pillar called ‘Trust’ if that is what we are after?

Well, the answer is thanks to the seminal work of philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill. She said that focusing on trust is fruitless – instead, you need to demonstrate that you are worthy of trust.

Basically, you can’t force someone to trust you. You can only show through the way you behave, not just once, but repeatedly, that you are honest, reliable, and competent:

  • tell the truth
  • do what you do well
  • and keep on doing these

Being reliable in these ways will mean that people will come to trust you. But the only bit you can do is show you are worthy of trust.

So, if you reflect on your reputation for being trustworthy and you want to be sure to keep it, do things differently.

Here are some case studies on our Code website that illustrate some ways that statistics producers show their Trustworthiness:

Statistics shining a light

To help us celebrate World Statistics Day on Tuesday 20 October, John Pullinger, President of the International Association for Official Statistics, has written this guest blog.

The last few months have been a dark time. There has been tragedy that has touched our families and communities. We struggle to see what is really going on as we try to make sense of the unfamiliar landscape that surrounds us. As the new reality begins to dawn, we need to get a clear picture so we can take the right steps to build a better future.

High quality, trustworthy and valued statistics help everyone see things for what they are. They shed light where there is gloom. My inspiration is Florence Nightingale whose 200th birthday we have celebrated this year. Famously she was the lady with the lamp, tending the sick and wounded in a war zone. Her example has drawn many into the wonderful vocation that is nursing.

When she came home she worked to pull together the data that had been collected during the war. She produced data visualisations that are stunning in their beauty and devastating in their message. They show with outstanding clarity that the main thing that killed the soldiers was the conditions in the hospitals not the wounds inflicted by the enemy.

As a nurse she cared about people but the light from her lamp reached only those in the room. As a statistician she cared about people and found a voice that demanded attention in the corridors of power. The insight from her statistics was a beacon that reached across the world. Her example calls statisticians to cherish their vocation as it does for nurses.

Today, as we think about the world after COVID, we are rightly showing much more love to our nurses. As in Florence Nightingale’s day the significance of statistics too is in the spotlight. Good statistics save lives. They enable our governments to take decisive and proportionate action and aid the creation of jobs and prosperity for all. They help identify injustice and enable the powerless to hold the powerful to account. They give us all a special way to assess the state of the world in which we live so that we can act to create an environment we want to live in and a sustainable future for our children. They are a guiding light for better decisions and better lives.

However, numbers used in public are not mere facts. The person using them is doing so to influence their audience. We need to know that the advertiser isn’t telling us about bias in the sample that generated 8 out of 10 likes for their product. We need to know that the politician isn’t telling us that being £1000 better off if you vote for them is based on lots of conditions that cannot be guaranteed. We need to know that the headline screaming “killer food increases risk of death by 20%” relates to a condition we are highly unlikely to get, so the extra risk is negligible. There is an unprecedented amount of data, a proliferation of channels to propagate it and often weak incentives to ensure that the information we receive is what it purports to be.

Fact checking and regulation of statistics used in public life help us see into the darkest corners of falsification, manipulation and mind-games with numbers. The work of the Office for Statistics Regulation is a vital public service, working alongside Full Fact and other organisations. Statistics produced for the public good are released into a foggy and polluted atmosphere full of dodgy data within a climate that seems to get ever hotter. A climate where many people all too readily cloak their vested interests in a fake veneer of statistical claims.

Now is a time to support those in the statistical community who provide statistics for the public good and to stand up against those who misuse statistics for their own vested interest. If we are to navigate a way forward to a better future we need high quality, trustworthy and valued statistics (and respect for our nurses).

The new Code of Practice is coming…

The new Code of Practice will be published next Thursday.

We’re really grateful for the huge amount of thought and effort you’ve contributed throughout our consultation process. It’s been amazing to see how much interest and enthusiasm the Code has generated.

I won’t give away too much, but a few things to look out for:

  • the Code will be based around the three pillars of trustworthiness, quality and value
  • there will be new interactive pages on this website, with links to guidance
  • we will also consult on our draft guide for voluntary application of the Code beyond official statistics, both inside and outside Government.

Our key message throughout this is that statistics are the lifeblood of democracy. The Code is built around public confidence in this essential public asset.

The Code will be used by statisticians and analysts on a daily basis. But it’s got a much wider reach. It helps Government organisations demonstrate that they live up to the highest standards. And it helps citizens have confidence in the statistics that describe the community and wider society they live in.

So we’re pretty excited to share this Code with you next week.