3 June 2013

Credit for who first referred to “lies, damned lies and statistics is uncertain”. Mark Twain (Clemens) who used the expression, attributed it to Disraeli although there is no record of him using it. The Commons PACS however seems to have no difficulty in attributing deceptive intent to the official use of some UK statistics.

In its report “Not Just True, but Also Fair” released last week the PASC criticised agencies for spinning statistics. It recommended that departmental press officers should develop their media releases in conjunction with statisticians to ensure accuracy and to give a truthful meaning to statistics.

The PASC’s concern was not just with agencies cherry picking statistics. It was critical of making news for party political purposes from a monthly change in figures but not also indicating that the change was irrelevant where there was no statistical trend over a longer period. It wants statistics presented in a fair, accurate way, “unspun”.

The PASC says that statistics used in government press releases do not always give a true and fair picture of the story behind the statistics, sometimes going too far to create a newsworthy headline. The implication is that the claim of transparency, the promotion of open government, and the encouragement to repackage official data by senior British Ministers may sometimes be less than genuine.

The PASC Chair commented that “…“Politicians tend to promote the statistics that best present their case. Finding the whole truth about government statistics is not always easy, and it should be. The numbers may be perfectly true but the act of selecting certain numbers distorts the true picture. …. In some cases, spinning reduces the story behind the statistics to such an extent that the picture is no longer true…”

“The UK Statistics Authority and the Government Statistics Service have a special obligation to act as an antidote to the famous dictum that ‘there are lies, damn lies, and statistics’. Where the Chair of the Statistics Authority judges that there has been misuse of official statistics, we support his independence and his right to intervene…” “..Wider and deeper improvements are still needed to the presentation and explanation of government statistics if public trust in them, and therefore in public policy, is to be earned and kept…”

The State Services Commissioner’s guidance on Understanding the Standards of Integrity and Conduct for the State Services explains how telling half truths is deceptive and breaches the obligation to be honest. “…Providing only half the facts may mean we are telling only half the truth. Honesty means that we are truthful and open…” Ministerial media advisers are State servants and subject to the code.

What should the Commissioner’s response be if a Ministerial adviser were to act as has been identified by the PASC and spin “….the story behind the statistics to such an extent that the picture is no longer true…?