"Lies, damned lies and statistics" – the phrase is attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and popularised by Mark Twain but it has gained a more recent resonance in the UK as trust in our own official statistics has plummeted.
Don't take that from me. Take it from Sir Michael Scholar, the former Treasury mandarin who is now head of the UK Statistics Authority, launched last week – or less explicitly from Gordon Brown, who set it up.
The idea is that there should be, and is now, an independent body that oversees the collection and dissemination of national statistics and reports direct to Parliament.
The Office for National Statistics carries on as before, or rather it would do were it not being relocated to Wales – a separate matter that is causing much pain for staff and users alike. But instead of the ONS reporting direct to the Government via the Treasury, it will now be semi-detached, protected both by its reporting lines and by the independence of its chairman and board.
Will it work? Well, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. It was interesting last week to hear Sir Michael stressing the importance of independence, something that he also made clear at his "pre-confirmation hearing" at the Treasury Select Committee last year.
But it was more interesting to hear the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, also at the launch, acknowledging the need to rebuild confidence in our national statistics. The Government is worried that people don't trust the numbers it gives out, and that therefore they don't trust what it says about performance.
This is not a new problem, as that quote at the beginning of the article demonstrates, but it does seem to have become worse in recent years. There are, I think, two reasons for this. One is that statistics have increasingly moved beyond narrow "hard" economic data to measure "soft" social and other matters. The second reason is that the Government's penchant for setting performance targets for the public sector – targets it can then say it has achieved but which are inevitably distorted.
As far as the former issue is concerned, you can within reasonable limits measure GDP (though we now, I am afraid, increasingly distrust measures of inflation), but it is very hard to measure child poverty in a precise way.
As for performance, we know this is manipulated to make the numbers look better, the classic example being cutting hospital waiting lists by having an informal list before patients can get on to the official one.
So we will see. The prize, though, is huge. This is not just about restoring faith in statistics; it is about genuinely improving the performance of government by giving it honest tools to measure its performance. The new board deserves a fair wind.Reuse content