Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies...

Misleading NuLab Data
...and government plans for government statistics.

The weekend was somewhat taken up by Rugby watching duties, where the joy at seeing Argentina make a very serious point to the IRB by outplaying the hosts France in the opening fixture was soon tempered by another fairly clueless performance by England. At least I did have the consolation of seeing the acrylic clad, cheap jewellery bedecked, slack-jawed kevball fans crammed into the poky back room at the Base Camp.

I did spot an interesting article in the Telegraph, but with all the heavy drinking duties I had performed, all I could do was bookmark it and assume that someone else would pick up on. It doesn't appear as if anyone I read has, so I thought it was still worth sharing a slightly stale, if still relevant story.

It can have escaped few people how little faith we have in government statistics. Crime figures, analysis of exam results, school and hospital performance figures, increasingly seem to bear little relationship to the experience of our own experiences.

This is obviously unsatisfactory, and the government, in its normal style, has decided that something must be done.
What is needed, of course, is a powerful independent watchdog. Well, now there is one. He is Sir Michael Scholar, 65, a former permanent secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry and for the past six years president of St John's College, Oxford, Tony Blair's alma mater.

Sir Michael is the first chairman of the new Statistics Board which starts work next April, thereby fulfilling the Government's promise - first made 10 years ago - to make the process more transparent and less open to abuse.

Source: Daily Telegraph

So far, so good, but as the Telegraph goes on to highlight:
The only problem is that the figures that often appear most contentious come not from the Office for National Statistics but from the departments themselves. Crime and immigration figures are handled by the Home Office; schools data by the new Children's ministry, health statistics by the NHS.

Sir Michael, an old Whitehall hand whose son Tom is Gordon Brown's chief of staff, will have no direct control over these, yet they make up four-fifths of all official data.

Source: Daily Telegraph

In fact Sir Michael's bailiwick extends in terms of real control, only to figures for employment, inflation and other economic information - in other words those areas where there hasn't really been a real argument over the statistics for years.

In all other cases departments will have the same level of control of the presentation of their own data, and Government Ministers will continue to have the longest advanced notice of any politicians in the western world over potentially damaging data, allowing ample time for massaging and reinterpretation.

The government actively opposed almost all extra scrutiny of the way data was used for political purposes in these more sensitive areas.

Once again it's a case of something being seen to be done that is the key, whilst behind the scenes the ever growing government spin machine can carry on in its own disreputable way.

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