OPINION: Accuracy is key to creating trust

While stuck in a car caught up in the chaos caused by the storms, I relearned the importance of accurate information...

Alex Aitken, head of  comms, Westminster City Council
Alex Aitken, head of comms, Westminster City Council

The bulletins provided by the Highways Agency enabled many people to complete journeys that had become lengthy and treacherous.

This was information we could rely on, yet this week has seen a fresh assault on the credibility of official information. The Treasury Select Committee concluded that pressure on the National Statistics Office to make efficiency gains will put the quality of its work at risk, and BBC’s Panorama programme has thrown doubt on the accuracy on the most basic element of data: the number of people who live in the country.

There is a general weakening in trust in official statistics. Crime is stable, according to the figures, but 65 per cent of the public think crime is increasing. While local authorities deliver
£77 million of efficiency savings each month, people remain unconvinced they deliver value for money. This disconnect makes it substantially more difficult for government to get its case across.

Government communication has improved in recent years, but reliable figures are the foundations of trust, providing the basis for ministers and council leaders to explain choices and demonstrate accountability. If the figures aren’t reliable, the policy case can’t be made convincingly.

The guardians of these vital numbers, the Office for National Statistics, has struggled to show why the official numbers are unimpeachable. It promised that the 2001 census would be the most accurate ever, yet it has spent the last six years trying to explain inaccuracies in the count.

This is despite the introduction of measurable targets to hold politicians accountable, and this may be the cause of the problem. National numbers may be too distant to be trusted. We need fewer explanations in millions or billions and more local numbers that relate to real-life experiences.

It’s time for the production of fewer, better and truly national statistics and independent verification with some local explanation. The decision to reduce targets within local government last week was a good start. Without a supply of reliable facts, government public relations will become a battle of style over substance.




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