Official statistics inform decisions right across society; and those decisions affect the lives of us all - for example, funding for public services, in determining economic and social policies and in the commercial decisions of businesses. They are also essential to the public understanding of our society, economy and of the performance of government.
It is therefore axiomatic that good official statistics are essential to the proper functioning of a democratic state. Their importance to society has been likened to that of 'clean water and sound money' and they have been described as the 'backbone' of democratic debate. As Professor Hans Rosling has recently observed:
In a democracy, decision making is ultimately made by the people, therefore statistics cannot only be the book-keeping of the state. It must be understood and used by many.
This paper examines the extent to which this vision has been and could be realised, based on the experiences of the UK statistical system, and from the perspective of the UK Statistics Authority.
The UK Statistics Authority was established in 2008 to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good. Public good is interpreted in a broad sense to mean that statistics are used in a way that benefits society, not just government. From its inception the Authority has argued that value of statistics can only be realised by an understanding of their utility.
Statistics can only genuinely inform the citizen and the democratic debate if the focus of the producer is upon utility. Put plainly: if people do not know the statistics exist, they will not use them. If people do not understand the statistics, they cannot use them properly. And, if people do not trust the statistical service, they will not believe the statistics. To what extent has utility in these terms been realised in the UK and what more can be done to achieve it?
This paper also examines what steps have been taken, and could be taken further, to connect more directly official statistics with the democratic process. For example: to produce statistics for the relevant units of democratic accountability; to produce statistics at relevant times in the electoral cycle; and in ways which are most accessible before and during an election period.
Keywords: Official Statistics, Democracy, Utility, United Kingdom
Biography: Rob Bumpstead has been Secretary to the Board of the UK Statistics Authority since its formation in 2008. Prior to that, he led a programme of work at the Office for National Statistics to prepare for independence under the new legislative arrangements which established the Authority. Rob advises the Authority on the exercise of its functions and oversees the Board secretariat.
Rob is a career social researcher and statistician and he has worked in survey and sample design, and statistical analysis, on topics including the UK Labour Market, Ethnicity and Identity, Psychiatric Morbidity and Housing. Before joining the Authority Rob was responsible for the design of the UK's Integrated Household Survey.