Office for Statistics Regulation guest blog post - data: helping sift the reliable from the unreliable

Published 23/04/2019   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

In this guest article, Head of Newport Office Mark Pont from the Office for Statistics Regulation sets out the role of the Office and some of the issues around the usage of data and statistics.

Statistics are a valuable public asset. But like any asset, they can be subject to misuse, not be maintained, or become obsolete. The aim of the Office for Statistics Regulation (OSR), part of the UK Statistics Authority, is to preserve this valuable public asset.

OSR’s statutory reach is “official statistics”. In Wales, this means those statistics produced by the Welsh Government and its sponsored bodies. But official statistics are not the only source of data to inform public debate. The Welsh Government and its sponsored bodies also publish a wealth of other data – research, management information and so on, with charities, research organisations and companies also publishing statistics on topical issues.

At the OSR, we aim to preserve this asset by upholding the virtues of trustworthiness, quality and value that form the three pillars of the Code of Practice for Statistics, which recently celebrated its first birthday. The Code aims to provide the framework to ensure that statistics are trustworthy, good quality, and are valuable – that they measure the things that most need to be measured. Together, the three pillars support public confidence in statistics.

We have welcomed the efforts of Welsh Government statisticians to follow the Code and welcomed the role that Assembly Members have played in promoting these good standards, for example by carefully observing the requirements around pre-release access.

The principles of the Code also apply to the other data and organisations mentioned above, offering the opportunity for an organisation to:

  • Compare its processes, methods and outputs against the recognised standards that the Code requires of official statistics; and
  • Demonstrate to the public its commitment to trustworthiness, quality and public value.

OSR has welcomed the voluntary commitment of a wide range of bodies, including official bodies such as Qualifications Wales, to following the Code’s key principles. At the OSR we continue to encourage others to reflect upon what the Code means for them.

With so much data available, a key part of the OSR’s remit is safeguarding the role of statistics in public decision making and debate. This means helping people to identify reliable data and enabling them to use the right data in the right way. As Sir David Spiegelhalter, former president of the Royal Statistical Society, succinctly said in a recent blog article, one of the criteria for good information is that it is “assessable – interested parties should, if necessary, be able to examine the workings and assess its quality.” We often find that misinterpretation and misuse arises from this lack of accessibility.

The OSR is often called upon to investigate and comment on potential misuse of statistics. As the UK’s statistics watchdog, we are involved in regular correspondence with elected representatives – and others such as members of the media and public – who are concerned about the way that facts and figures are used (and misused) in reports, speeches and other aspects of public debate. For example, with recent interventions relating to the Prime Minister’s comparisons of A&E waiting times between England and Wales, and to claims of misuse of statistics on the Welsh language. Those two examples demonstrate the importance of transparent and clear reference to data sources to better inform public debate.

As well as challenging and commenting on the quality of and use of statistics, OSR also plays a supporting role. Guidance to help with Code compliance is available on the Code webpages linked above, and further guidance on the use of statistics is available on the Government Statistical Service’s website.

You can find out more about OSR, the team and what we do on our website.

Article by Mark Pont, Head of Newport Office, Office for Statistics Regulation