The British Chancellor Gordon Brown announced last month that he would introduce legislation to make the Office for National Statistics (ONS) independent. That is no small change. Analogies with the Bank of England are misleading; the last remotely comparable government body to have been given statutory independence was the National Audit Office (NAO) more than 20 years ago. The ONS is as integral to the weft and weave of government as the NAO ever was, if not more so. The chancellor went further, saying that he would make the governance of official statistics the responsibility of this new, "wholly separate" ONS.
That word "governance" is crucial. While the ONS produces most of the key economic aggregates and a mass of other data, many politically explosive figures come out of Whitehall's big battalions -- crime statistics from the Home Office, hospital waiting lists from the health department and so on. Also, the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland increasingly run their own statistical shows.
Getting a grip on the governance of all these statistics is needed both for good management and to give the rest of us some reassurance that the whole statistical system is being developed in the public interest, not just on behalf of today's departmental ministers. At present no one is in overall charge. The chancellor now seems to have reached the welcome view that it is time this was put right. In doing so he will need not only to take a firm hand in Whitehall but also find a way of respecting the independence, and needs, of devolved administrations while ensuring that all parts of the UK co-operate in fields such as health statistics where comparable data are needed.
Somehow, the announcement on November 28 managed to skirt the uncomfortable topic of trust, referring instead to "entrenching long-term stability". But trust is what this is about. In the government's view, our official statistics are at least as good as anybody else's: it is just that they have become a political football. While the rest of us might have a few quibbles, there is some truth in this.
In February, the independent Statistics Commission published a report, Official Statistics: Perceptions and Trust. Two conclusions shone through. First, people who use the data -- from businessmen to journalists and politicians -- already have considerable regard for the ONS's honesty and professionalism. Of course, statistics are complex and things sometimes go wrong. Yet no one doubted the values that underpin the work. But, second, there was huge cynicism about the use and abuse of statistics by government, both among the general public and those closer to policy. Only 17 per cent of the public thought figures were produced without political interference.
Statistics are now the currency of policymaking. This UK government of Prime Minister Tony Blair, in particular, has embraced evidence-based decisions and target setting for public policy, so that progress can be monitored. But, if the currency is debased, then policies will not be rooted in reality. Trust in government, let alone statistics, will be compromised.
The commission was set up after political controversies during the previous UK government over, for example, unemployment statistics. It was something of an experiment, a non-statutory body, reporting to the Treasury and charged with recommending how National Statistics might develop. It has done good work, including proposals for legislation of the kind to which the chancellor is now committed, and recent reports on Managing the Quality of Official Statistics and a statistical assessment of public service agreement (or PSA) targets; things such as hospital waiting lists. The growth of the target culture puts a premium on data that are real and used sensibly.
The commission does not attempt to police political debate. Rather, it tackles concern that, as the use of statistics increases, so too does the scope to mislead rather than inform. In all the excitement about changes to the ONS, the value of this complementary audit and oversight role must not be ignored.
Indeed, it needs strengthening. It cannot remain dependent on individuals who come and go and could, therefore, be subject to political appointment. Rather, the commission should become, or be replaced by, a body whose authority and independence, like that of the new ONS, is rooted in statute and guaranteed by its ability to report directly to parliament. The small print of the chancellor's announcement seems to point to such a change. But we must wait on the details and not let the opportunity slip past. (The writer, a founder member of the Statistics Commission, is just completing her term of office. FT Syndication Service)