The Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar, has called for a reduction in the time before official UK government statistics are available to the public (from 24 to 3 hours). Instead of allowing ministers to have reports well in advance, enabling them to anticipate or steer public reaction, this would put the public and their officials on a more level footing. Equally important, this modest reform will help put more eyeballs on public statistics at an earlier point in time, enhancing the role that the Internet can play in providing an added source of public accountability. Given my own belief that the Internet is providing a new and independent source of public accountability, a Fifth Estate, in many respects, this is good news.
There will be concerns that the public will misunderstand, and misinterpret statistical reports, unless they are positioned correctly. This does not argue against their timely publication, but for government agencies to provide clear reports, and for agencies and politicians to be better prepared to respond to public comments and to use public comments constructively to stimulate and inform debate over statistical results.
This is reported today in the Times in an article entitled: ‘Restore trust by ending privileged access to official data, says statistics watchdog’. The UK Statistics Authority is an independent, non-ministerial department, that is charged to ‘promote and safeguard the quality of official statistics that serve the public good’. It is new, being set up only in April 2008. Sir Michael Scholar, President of St John’s College, Oxford, has had a distinguished career in the civil service. He took up his appointment as Chair of the UK Statistics Authority in 2008. The article suggests that the Chair sees this move as one of a number of steps to help restore greater public trust in the reporting of government information.