It’s roughly a year ago that I gave evidence to the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee.
A lot has happened in a year. I did things at the evidence session that don’t happen now. The Committee session took place in person, not over Zoom. I shook hands with the other witnesses. Afterwards I chatted with several people, including the Committee Chair, Lord Puttnam, and gave no thought as to whether we were two metres apart.
But looking back on the Lords report, published in June last year, it’s clear that the report remains highly relevant.
The Committee was grappling with one of the challenges of our age: whether or not norms of democracy and democratic debate are under threat from digital technologies, social media and so on. In particular, if it is true that false information can circulate more freely in social media than they did in the past, does that erode one of the bedrocks of democracy? Lord Puttnam’s foreword vividly describes this as another kind of virus:
“Our Committee is delivering this Report to Parliament in the middle of an unprecedented health and consequential economic crisis. But our Report focuses on a different form of crisis, one with roots that extend far deeper, and are likely to last far longer than COVID-19. This is a virus that affects all of us in the UK – a pandemic of ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’. If allowed to flourish these counterfeit truths will result in the collapse of public trust, and without trust democracy as we know it will simply decline into irrelevance.” Foreword by Lord Puttnam, Chair of the Committee
The Committee’s report made a range of thoughtful recommendations. A lot of them cover legislative and regulatory change, around how digital platforms operate and electoral laws should adapt to the digital era.
And they align well with the principles that underpin our work at the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR) and the Code of Practice for Statistics.
This is because the report highlights the importance of information that serves the public good. This includes empowering citizens:
Alongside establishing rules in the online world, we must also empower citizens, young and old, to take part as critical users of information. We need to create a programme of lifelong education that will equip people with the skills they need to be active citizens.
There is growing interest in this notion of digital or statistical literacy. The recent ESCoE report on understanding economic concepts has grown awareness of issues around public understanding and engagement in economic matters. Meanwhile, OSR’s own review of literature on the public good of statistics found that a lack of statistical literacy can lead to misunderstanding or misuse of statistics, and susceptibility to misinformation.
The report also touches on the public’s need for high quality information. The report places journalism at the centre of this: “The public needs to have access to high quality public interest journalism to help inform them about current events.”
We agree with the crucial role of journalism. But journalism is often playing the role of intermediary between Government and citizens. And if citizens should be equipped to interpret information, so too the Government has a crucial role to play in providing clear, accessible, high quality information.
Statistics that serve the public good
The pandemic has shown this repeatedly. The UK’s four governments have put an enormous emphasis on providing accessible data on cases, testing, deaths, hospitalisations, and now vaccines. All four governments have improved the range and depth of data available, and all have sought to comply with the Code of Practice for Statistics. There have been occasions where we’ve pointed out ways in which the information can be better presented, or more information made available. But that’s against the backdrop of commitments to inform the public. And it’s clear that this information is used and valued by the public.
Data and evidence has remained prominent for Parliament during the pandemic. The Commons Science and Technology Committee report recently published a strong report on The UK response to covid-19: use of scientific advice. And the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the transparency and accountability of Covid-19. Both of these Committees have drawn on our work at OSR to emphasise the importance of presenting data well. The Science and Technology Committee summarised the issues thus:
As the Office for Statistics Regulation advised, in order to maintain high levels of confidence, data and statistics should be presented in ways that align with high standards of clarity and rigour—especially when they are used to support measures of great public impact.” Key finding 6, Science and Technology Committee
The Government’s role in informing the public
My reflection, then, looking back over the last year and at the Lords report, is how important the Government’s role is in informing the public.
As I said to the Lords Committee:
What keeps me awake at night is that so many official statistics have the potential to be valuable assets, not just for the policy elites, but for the public more broadly. But that potential is unrealised, because they are presented and communicated in a dry and almost mechanical way: we did this survey and got these results. They are not presented in a way that engages and links into the things that people are concerned about. I worry much more about that than I do about the more pervasive concerns people have about misinformation. I worry about the good information not getting out there. Q93, Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies
The enduring lesson of the last 12 months is this: providing information that is trustworthy, high quality and high value to the public is a crucial function of Government.