In our latest guest blog, Ken Roy, independent researcher and former Head of Profession, reflects on the narratives from international statistical systems, linking them to the public good that statistics can serve…

I really welcome the decision of the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) to pursue research and engagement work on the ‘public good’ of statistics. It feels sensible and timely to explore this concept that is (legislatively) at the heart of the UK’s Official Statistics system.

Last year’s report by the OSR in collaboration with Administrative Data Research UK (ADR UK) captured views on this topic from members of the public – exploring the potential public good arising from the use of administrative data in research. This provided some really helpful insights – with participants framing ‘public good’ both in terms of processes (e.g. appropriate data protection) and of tangible outcomes (for people and for communities).

That focus on tangible outcomes links to my fascination about the narratives used to describe the positive impacts of statistics, specifically of Official Statistics – linking to my research interest in the future choices that Official Statistics systems might need to make (including about what and who they are for).

Narratives from official statistics systems

I have been looking at some of the narratives used by bodies producing Official Statistics – specifically those in a sample of recent strategies and business plans from different National Statistical Offices. Inevitably these documents focus on planned programmes of work – the key statistical outputs, the technical and methodological investments etc – and occasionally on interesting things like budgets.

When these documents touch on the rationale for (or purpose of) Official Statistics, one approach is to present Official Statistics as a ‘right’ of citizens or as essential national infrastructure. For example Statistics Finland frame Official Statistics as “our shared national capital”. A further common approach is to reference the broad purpose of improved decision making – Statistics Canada has the aim that “Canadians have the key information they need to make evidence-based decisions.”

Looking beyond these high-level statements, I was keen to find any further, more specific, expressions of real-world impacts. The following sets out some initial groups of ideas and some representative quotes.

In terms of direct impacts for citizens, some strategies have a headline aim that citizens are knowledgeable about their world – Statistics Iceland aims to enable an “informed society”. A slightly different ambition is that different groups of citizens are represented or ‘seen’ by Official Statistics. The UK Statistics Authority aims to “reflect the experiences of everyone in our society so that everyone counts, and is counted, and no one is forgotten”. There are also references to the role of Official Statistics (and data more broadly) in empowering citizens – most commonly through giving them the means to hold government to account. One of the headline aims of New Zealand’s Data Investment Plan is that “government is held to account through a robust and transparent data system”.

Also relevant to citizens is the ambition for Official Statistics to enable healthy, informed public debate – one aim of the Australian Bureau of Statistics is that their work will “provide reliable information on a range of matters critical to public debate”.

Some narratives hint at the contribution of Official Statistics systems to national economic success. Stats NZ notes that “the integrity of official data can have wide-ranging implications … such as the interest charged on government borrowing.” The Papua New Guinea statistics office references a focus on “private sector investors who want to use data and statistics to aid investment decisions”.

Finally, we come to governments. Official Statistics are regularly presented as essential to a better, more effective, government process – through establishing understanding of the circumstances and needs of citizens, businesses and places and hence supporting the development and implementation of better policies, programmes and services in response. The National Bureau of Statistics (Tanzania) sees Official Statistics as enabling “evidence-based formulation, planning, monitoring and evaluation which are key in the realization of development aspirations.” A related theme is the contribution to good governancethe United Nations presents Official Statistics as “an essential element of the accountability of governments and public bodies to the public in a democratic society.”

Some reflections

It has been illuminating and enjoyable (honest!) to scan a small sample of corporate documents for ideas about the impacts of Official Statistics, recognising (as you will find if you click any links) that this is a bit of a mining exercise. A more rigorous exercise would be able to better account for the various factors (including administrative and cultural norms, and language) that shape what is included (and what is not) in these sources.

There are clearly common themes across these documents – I have not attempted to create any ranking of key phrases but I suspect that ‘evidence-based decision-making’ might come top. Where documents do go beyond universal purposes, there are some interesting ideas to build on. For example, can we better articulate (or quantify) the public good that might come from different groups of citizens being better represented within Official Statistics or from public debate being better informed?

One challenge, however, is that when more detailed impacts are considered, we start to enter the world of priorities and trade-offs. Hence public bodies producing Official Statistics seem to have to find a balance between setting out high-level outcomes or stating more specific ambitions.

From the documents that I have looked at, no National Statistical Office has been brave enough to commit to delivering a full outcome set of knowledgeable, represented, empowered citizens, healthy public debate, economic success and effective government (demonstrating good governance).

All of which suggests that expressing the public good of Official Statistics is complicated and that there are different approaches that might be adopted or evolved. In a UK context, it is therefore encouraging that gathering further evidence on this topic this remains a priority area within the OSR’s Areas of Research Interest.

If tangible outcomes are to be part of that continuing conversation, then it might be worth trying to make some sort of connection between the sorts of narratives referenced above and the views of members of the public. It would be interesting to know whether the participants in the original OSR and ADR UK research work had any of these Strategy or Corporate Plan derived ideas in mind when they said that they wanted to see tangible impacts from the use of statistics. Perhaps we should ask them.