Tuesday 15 November 2011

Whitehall waste – official statistics

From today's BBC News website:
Home Office drug seizure figures were 'highly selective'
The UK Border Agency has been "highly selective" in its use of drugs seizure figures, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority has said.

Sir Michael Scholar has written to the Home Office to seek reassurances that figures were not released to generate positive news coverage.

He said if this was the case it would be "highly corrosive and damaging" ...
Sir Michael is Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority. He is a Good Thing.

This isn't the first time he's taken the Home Office to task over its tendentious use of statistics. Public Servant magazine carried this article back in March 2009:
Statistics show this watchdog is prepared to bare its teeth
Government departments – notably the Home Office – are having to learn some painful lessons on the use and misuse of statistics. The Home Office has found itself in hot water a couple of times – for its fact sheet on knife crime statistics in December, and for tacking a press release on "tough border controls" onto ONS data on population figures last August.
From the same article:
Concern about declining public trust in government in general – and official statistics in particular – led ministers, with all-party support, to set up an independent watchdog in the UK Statistics Authority [chaired by Sir Michael Scholar], with a tough new code of practice for all public bodies producing any kind of official figures ...

“One of the reasons I took this job is that having good statistics is like having clean water and clean air. It’s the fundamental material that we depend on for an honest political debate”, [says Sir Michael] ...

One innovation is a national statistics publication hub website, on which all the new statistical releases are posted every day. “For the first time it completely separates the statistics from comment on them ...

The new rule that data cannot be released to the media or ministers more than 24 hours before publication is also having an effect ...

Does what is perceived as the selective release of the most favourable figures into friendly ears contribute to public distrust?

“I think it does,” Sir Michael replies. “I personally think it’s a form of corruption” ...

“… what should happen is that political debate takes place on the basis of a clean set of statistics, produced without political interference by professionals who have a clear set of values as regards the integrity, objectivity and impartiality of what they are doing” ...
Someone approached the UK Statistics Authority a few years ago and asked if they could take a look at the statistics associated with the Home Office's ID cards scheme. These statistics are so unimpressive that the project should not be allowed to proceed, said someone.

No, said the UK Statistics Authority, we can only intervene where there are official statistics. The statistics the Home Office are relying on are not official. So we can't comment.

That is one of the many problems with project management in Whitehall. That is one reason why so much public money is wasted by Whitehall. That is why someone suggested to the Home Office that they should submit themselves to the discipline of the UK Statistics Authority, see below. And that is very possibly why the Home Office have never answered that point:
I suggest that the way to overcome that scepticism is to place the matter in the hands of the Office of National Statistics. The use of mass consumer biometrics in public services, I suggest, should be based on official statistics. If rigorous academic evaluation suggests that mass consumer biometrics have a part to play, well and good. If not, then don't let's waste our time and money on them.
22 November 2011 – one week later, the Guardian catch up:  In praise of … Sir Michael Scholar

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