Official statistics are not inherently trustworthy. They are rarely complete counts like football scores. For the most part, they are estimates drawn from sample surveys or from other available sources such as administrative data. We do expect them to be the best estimates that can be produced for a particular budget at a particular time. But that is not the same as being 'right'. And even when they are highly accurate – such as statistics of school examination results – they can mislead if the nature of the statistics is not fully compatible with the use to which we want to put them. Often official statistics are not quite what the user might assume them to be. Examples include GDP per capita for local areas; migration statistics; statistics of violence and many others. So why do we ask the public to trust them when we know there are all these problems?
Trust matters because it affects the utility of the statistics; and utility affects the value to government and society; and their value is what really matters. Less trust means less use and less value. But it is not trust in the figures themselves that is the central issue. It is trust in the service provided to the user. If the weaknesses and limitations of the statistics are fully and frankly explained, and their usefulness established, even relatively unreliable statistics can be trusted in some important respects. They can be trusted to be the best estimates possible, to be the most relevant statistics to a particular use and to be fully and honestly explained. Those are important tests for official statistics. They prompt the question of whether such public trust exists currently.
In the UK, various attempts have been made to measure levels of trust and the results are both revealing and give some cause for concern. However, we conclude that what is needed is not ever more surveys of public trust but a more focused dialogue with 'opinion formers' – the better informed users and commentators who can be expected to lead public opinion in the longer term and whose views offer richer insights. We need to ask them the right questions and pay close attention to the answers. That is the type of research most likely to enhance the value of the service.
Keywords: Official Statistics; Trust; Measurement; Accuracy
Biography: Richard Alldritt is the Director General for Monitoring and Assessment, and a member of the UK Statistics Authority. He was appointed to this statutory office in May 2008 and is responsible for advising the Authority on the scrutiny of official statistics.
Richard is a career statistician who has worked in a number of government organisations, including the Home Office, the Central Statistical Office and the Welsh Assembly Government. Before being appointed to the Statistics Authority, he was Chief Executive of the Statistics Commission for five years.