Over the past 18 months we’ve talked a lot about transparency. We’ve made public interventions such as our call for UK governments to provide more transparency around COVID data, and it’s been prominent in our vision for the future of analysis in government, including in our Statistical Leadership and State of Statistical System reports.
But what do we mean when we talk about transparency? Why do we care? And what can be done to support it?
What do we mean by transparency?
Transparency is about working in an open way. For us, transparency means being open about the data being used. Explaining what judgements have been made about data and methods, and why. Being clear about the strengths and limitations of data – including what they can tell us about the world, and what they can’t. It also means making sure data and associated explanations are easy to find and clearly presented. It is at the core of many of the practices outlined in the Code of Practice for Statistics.
Why does it matter?
The pandemic has increased the public appetite for data and drawn attention to the significance of data in decision making. Many of us will have become familiar with the phrase “data, not dates” – a phrase which UK government used as it set out its road map for easing coronavirus restrictions. In a context when so many have been asked to give up so much on the basis of data it is especially important that the data are understood and trusted. Transparency is essential to this.
Transparency supports informed decisions. Appropriate use of data is only possible when data and associated limitations are understood. We all make daily decisions based on our understanding of the world around us. Many of these are informed by data from governments, perhaps trying to understand the risk of visiting a relative or judging when to get fuel.
We also need this understanding to hold government to account. Clearly presented data on key issues can help experts and the public understand government actions. For example, whether the UK is taking appropriate action to tackle climate change? Or how effectively governments are managing supply chains?
Transparency gives us a shared understanding of evidence which supports decisions. It allows us to focus on addressing challenges and improving society, rather than argue about the provenance of data and what it means. It supports trust in governments and the decisions they make. It allows us to make better individual and collective decisions. Ultimately, it ensures that statistics can serve the public good.
What is government doing?
We have seen many impressive examples of governments across the UK publishing increasingly large volumes of near real time data in accessible ways. One of the most prominent being the coronavirus dashboard and equivalents in other parts of the UK, such as the Northern Ireland COVID-19 Dashboard.
It has become routine for data to be published alongside daily Downing Street briefings, and through its additional data and information workbook Scottish Government has put in place an approach which enables it to release data quickly when necessary. We have also seen examples of clear explanations of data and the implications of different choices, such as the Chief Statistician’s update on the share of people vaccinated in Wales.
However, this good practice is not universal. Transparency regularly features in our casework. We have written public letters on a range of topics including Levelling Up, fuel stocks, hospital admissions and travel lists. We want to see a universal commitment to transparency from all governments in the UK. This should apply to data quoted publicly or used to justify important government decisions. Where data are not already published, mechanisms need to be in place to make sure data can be published quickly.
The Ministerial Code supports this ambition by requiring UK Government ministers to be mindful of the Code of Practice for Statistics – a requirement that is also reflected in the Scottish and Welsh Ministerial Codes and the Northern Ireland Guidance for Ministers. In response to a recent Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee report the UK Government itself said:
“The Government is committed to transparency and will endeavour to publish all statistics and underlying data when referenced publicly, in line with the Code of Practice for Official Statistics.”
What is OSR doing?
We want to see statistics serve the public good, with transparency supporting informed decisions and enabling people to hold government to account. Over coming months, we will:
- build our evidence base, highlighting good examples and understanding more about barriers to transparency.
- continue to intervene on specific cases where we deem it necessary, guided by the UK Statistics Authority’s interventions policy.
- work with external organisations and officials in governments to support solutions and make the case for transparency.
What can you do?
We’re under no illusion: OSR can’t resolve this on our own. Whether an organisation or individual we need your help.
You can question the data you see. Does it make sense? Do you know where it comes from? Is it being used appropriately?
You can raise concerns with us via firstname.lastname@example.org – our FAQs set out what to expect if you raise a concern with us. We’d also love to hear from other organisations with an interest in transparency.
And you can keep up to date with our work via our newsletter.