The UK Statistics Authority has a new Chair. His name is Andrew Dilnot and he replaces the first-ever chair of the UK Statistics Authority Sir Michael Scholar and he has been in office not much more than a week. The UK Statistics Authority is the watchdog that is meant to ensure that official statistics are not manipulated, massaged, misquoted or interfered with by politicians, so it is actually rather important. If we are to believe such things as crime figures, unemployment figures and the rest, they have to be accurate and impartial and properly reported, and that is Dilnot’s new job. For details of how someone else failed rather disastrously at the job interview, see here. It also tells you more about the watchdog role of the UK Statistics Authority: it is, briefly, to be a Rottweiler rather than a poodle and to make sure, in Kipling’s words, that official statistics are not twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.
Some may remember Andrew Dilnot as the presenter of BBC Radio Four’s popular numeracy programme More or Less, which has just returned (with different presenters) for a new run – listen to it here. Dilnot himself wrote about how non-mathematical listeners responded to the programme in Significance. If you want to know what the man and woman in the street really feel about statistics, it is well worth reading.
In his new job he seems to have hit the ground running. In early April the independent non-profit fact-checking organisation Full Fact sent him a letter pointing out that politicians, and the media, often ask the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for figures on subjects that they want to discuss; these figures, prepared specially for Ministers or for journalists, can be on everything from immigration to unemployment. These are called ‘ad hoc’ figures – they are not part of ONS official releases – and they remain unpublished. The media then describe those figures as ‘exclusive’ or even ‘secret’, and when ministers give speeches based on those figures the rest of us do not have access to them.
Prompted by Full Fact’s concerns, Dilnot has moved swiftly. He is ensuring that the public has equal access to such data. He has instructed the ONS to publish the ‘ad hoc’ figures it provides to politicians and the media on its website, and National Statistician Jil Matheson is preparing similar guidance for statisticians in all government departments. His response to Full Facts is here. It says, among other things, that “the Statistics Authority supports the Government’s Open Data initiative and wants to see all statistical material (that is not disclosive of confidential information) readily available in the public domain.”
The move should now see ad hoc data opened to public scrutiny. Dilnot has further pointed out that the UK Statistics Authority’s Code of Practice for Official Statistics requires civil servants to ‘make official statistics equally available to all’.
Plaudits then for Dilnot? It seems so. Will Moy, Full Fact Director, said: “In his first days in the job, Andrew Dilnot has kicked off a quiet revolution in Whitehall. This new guidance will make it far harder for Ministers and interest groups to use official figures selectively for political aims. When statistics are put out, anyone will be able to see where they come from, and all the caveats that apply. It is good to see Andrew Dilnot living up to his stated intention of being the "enforcer of impartial statistics" and putting the important long-standing principle of equal access firmly into practice."
The new statistics watchdog is, happily, looking much more Rottweiler than poodle.