Public mistrusts official data- particularly waiting times lists
The figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest efforts by the labour government to improve public confidence have had little effect.
The survey places even more pressure on the government to restore trust, following an equally biting analysis from the Statistics Commission. As reported in the Financial Times, the watchdog has published on its website a harsh valedictory note attacking departments for spinning statistics.
Britons’ lack of trust in official figures- barely one third believe them to be generally accurate – is unchanged since the last survey two years ago.
This is in spite of ONS measures designed to boost confidence, including the launch of a personal inflation calculator, data reviews, and improved information on macroeconomic revisions.
People were more sceptical about how the figures were used than about how they were produced.
In this sense, the public’s assessment echoes the views of the Commission. Its farewell report did not attack the compiling of the statistics, but rather the way in which they were presented by some government departments.
Only 16 per cent agreed that “the government uses figures honestly when talking about its policies”. But there was a small increase in the number of people who felt figures were compiled without interference – from 17 per cent in 2005, when the survey was last conducted, to 20 per cent in 2007.
Two years ago a survey of opinion formers by the Commission showed they believed the quality of statistics was among the best in the world. However, the same experts complained that “growing emphasis on performance indicators and targets had meant that official statistics were perceived as sometimes being pushed too far, beyond what they were capable of measuring”.
Their proposed solution was a “greater distance between the producers of statistics and government”.
The ONS reports to the chancellor but from April 1 control will pass to the new Statistics Authority, which answers directly to parliament and has a remit to improve public trust.
For the ONS survey, the public was asked about trust in six sets of data. The most trusted were road accident statistics and the least trusted were hospital waiting lists. No datasets had become more trusted since 2005. There was a fall in the numbers believing population figures to be accurate.
Lord Lipsey, of the newly formed Campaign for Real Statistics, which wants to reduce data misuse, said: “The abuse of statistics is reaching epidemic proportions.”
Problems of presentation
NHS inpatient and outpatient waiting times, Department of Health “Only online tables are produced, there is no commentary and definitions are aimed at suppliers of the information rather than users”
Armed forces quarterly press release, Defence Analytical Services Agency “A confusing title (the topic is the number of serving personnel and planned requirement over the last 12 months), inadequate commentary and notes and no indication of sources or methods, and defined as a press release and not a statistics release”
House building, communities and local government department “The commentary compares two statistics that should not be compared (they don’t cover the same time period), it does not mention the PSA [public service agreement] target for new buildings completed, and the charts are not included in the text” Source: Statistics Commission
Health Direct is reminded of two adages- you can fool some of the people some of the time- and he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.