Expert body calls for stats training for ministers

The Royal Statistical Society calls for additional education and claims that pandemic highlighted instances where senior parliamentarians were often unable to correctly interpret and present to the public key numbers

The Royal Statistical Society is calling on the next government to introduce statistical training for ministers.

The RSS has written to all leaders of the main UK political parties, urging them ensure that, if they win the election, ministers will be provided with training in interpreting data. It has also asked for pre-release access, where the government sees key statistical releases before the press and public do, to be put to an end. 

The society pointed to UK Covid Inquiry evidence which has highlighted that, during the pandemic, the prime minister and other ministers were unable to interpret key statistical evidence.

Diary notes from pandemic-era government chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, released to the inquiry, include one where he said: “Watching PM get his head around stats is awful. He finds relative and absolute risk almost impossible to understand.” In another, he said Johnson was “taken through the graphs but it was a real struggle to get him to understand them”.

To prevent this issue happening again, particularly during times of national emergency, the RSS said it wants all party leaders to agree that ministers should receive basic statistical training, which the society has offered to provide.

Dr Sarah Cumbers, RSS’s chief executive, said: “The UK is lucky to have one of the strongest statistical systems in the world, but a lack of data skills in our politicians can threaten to undermine this.”

The letters to Rishi Sunak, Sir Keir Starmer and the other main UK political parties, also call for ministers to abide by the UK Statistics Authority’s Code of Practice for Statistics and for this to be incorporated into the ministerial code. The code’s pillar of trustworthiness – with statistics being used with honesty and integrity by ministers – is essential to ensure public trust, the RSS said.

Pre-release access was ended for Office for National Statistics data in 2017 following a long campaign by the RSS, but it remains in place for official statistics produced by other government departments and the devolved administrations.

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The RSS said the practice “threatens to undermine public confidence in the statistics themselves when ministers are potentially able to prepare their own spin on the numbers ready for when they are released to the press and public”.

It also “creates the impression that the government is in control of the data and its release, threatening to erode trust in the independence of the UK’s statistical system”, the society said.

Cumbers said: “Our next prime minister has a real opportunity to build public confidence in our data by ending any potential spin and ensuring their ministers use statistics responsibly.”

The RSS letter also called for systemic barriers to data sharing to be urgently addressed to improve the UK’s data infrastructure, and in turn, public services.

“There are a number of systemic and cultural barriers to data sharing between government departments that hamper the government’s ability to develop a full picture of the state of the nation and to drive improvements in the efficiency of public services,” the letter said. “If the potential for data to help improve services is to be fulfilled, government must ensure that the UK’s data infrastructure is fit for purpose.”

Both  the issue of pre-release and barriers around data sharing between government departments were highlighted in a recent review of the UKSA.

In response to the review, the Cabinet Office said it would “work with other government departments to develop nuanced policy solutions to the challenges identified. Once this work has been completed it is our intention to publish a more detailed response to these two recommendations later in 2024”.

The asks in the letters to party leaders form part of the RSS’s election manifesto Statistics in Action: A manifesto for empowering society through data.

Additionally, the RSS published a report yesterday which outlines its vision for the delivery of public statistics: a more user-focused, more transparent, a more strategic approach to maximising the value of available data, and appropriate governance, especially around how the role of a UK statistical council and a full statistical programme can best be integrated into the statistical system.

The report also urges the next government to move away from the Cabinet Office’s expressed attitude that government’s statistical needs should “take precedence” over wider user needs.

Tevye Markson

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