Why don't we trust Government stats?

The latest evidence of declining public trust in official government information was unveiled this week by Mori. Sarah Robertson examines its findings, gauges industry reaction and asks what should be done.

The maxim that there is no objective truth, only interpretation, is apt when discussing the public's relationship with the powers that be. Indeed, a report by Mori, 'Who do you believe? Trust in government information', identifies a decline of faith in official statistics.

The report, revealed exclusively to PRWeek ahead of publication on 23 November, claims the credibility of public information campaigns have been undermined by the war in Iraq, the celebrity 'spin doctor' status of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, and growing awareness that government information is 'packaged'.

'The Government's worst nightmare is not that its policies might fail, but that they might succeed (without public recognition) because of the chronic distrust of official statistics around policing, hospitals and schools,' says Young Foundation director Geoff Mulgan in the report's foreword.

Mori's recommendations on how to tackle the issue complement those made in last year's Phillis Report, which investigated the breakdown of trust between government, media and the public.

Most notably, Mori calls for the creation of a national statistics body that would be, unlike the Office of National Statistics, independent from government. It would produce and kite-mark government information and have auditing powers. Report co-author Bobby Duffy says it could also have legal and financial recourse for the misinterpretation of statistics.

The setting up of such a body was one of the few recommendations from the Phillis Report not to be adopted by the Government.

Authoritarian response?

However, pundits have questioned how such a group would operate. Former Department for Culture, Media and Sport director of comms and strategy Siobhan Kenny takes particular offence at the 'recourse for the misinterpretation of statistics': 'It is an astonishing proposition and seems like an authoritarian response. There should be a free press.'

Fishburn Hedges director Sue Garrard asks who would monitor a national statistics office and what standards it would represent. But Duffy dismisses concerns that such a body would be dictatorial. 'It would not say that media have to make particular conclusions, but to ensure information is not misrepresented,' he says.

Government statistics that tend to cause the most controversy include those on crime and the health service. Respondents in Mori's research cited crime figures, which were turned into an election issue in April, as an example of how anything could be made of statistics, and as a major reason for distrusting government information.

Here, industry commentators overwhelmingly cite the need for the public to understand the difference between political and government information.

'There needs to be clear separation between civil servants and their political masters,' says Garrard.

Mike Granatt, Luther Pendragon partner and former director of comms at the Government Information Communications Service, agrees.

'The answer has to be complete transparency,' he says. 'Civil servants should stick to factual information. The regular and routine release of factual information is very important.'

Third-party endorsement

The report also recommends delivering information via less-familiar politicians - because rolling out the same spokespeople can cause loss of credibility - as well as using third-party endorsement of information.

However, the Government has already adopted some of these tactics. For example, the Department of Health in currently working with the British Heart Foundation to lend added credibility to its anti-smoking campaigns.

Kenny points the finger at modern media reporting for causing a decline of trust in government comms: 'We are lucky we have an efficient civil service, but if you believed the media, you would not know this. The number of outlets has grown, there is more competition in the industry and it is now driven by comment rather than reported fact. No wonder people are confused.'

Bell Pottinger MD of public affairs Peter Bingle concurs: 'It is the blurring of fact and opinion that has hurt this government.'

One way the Government is addressing the issue is through programmes of consultation. For example, the DoH's consultation paper, 'Your health, your care, your say', cited improved internal comms as an effective way of restoring trust.

Opinion Leader Research joint CEO Viki Cooke, who oversaw the project, says: 'Trust is emotional rather than rational. You will believe a nurse who complains about service cutbacks more than you will a government official.' So if frontline staff can communicate to service users what the government is trying to achieve, reputation will be aided by word of mouth across communities, she adds.

Government has significant hurdles to overcome. But through direct, transparent communication - and by building consensus that stats are not being spun for political ends - steps can be taken to restore public confidence.

MORI: HOW THE NATION'S TRUST HAS DECLINED

The study comprised two phases: the first was qualitative research conducted in September 2004, involving five regional focus groups representative of the population; the second was a collation of existing findings on the subject.

Opinions from the focus groups included the following:

- London: 'There are two figures crime is measured by: the British Crime Survey and the police's own statistics. The problem is that the Government keeps changing which one they use depending on which one's going down more.'

- Chester: 'The Government has been spinning for so long that it's now branded as untrustworthy. It's such a powerful message that it'll take ten years of being honest to sort it out and they haven't got that long.'

- Stockport: 'Everything the Government does - there's spin on it. Even when you don't think it's being spun, it's got spin on it.'

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