The Fifth Estate Needs Better Public Information

The following is a comment on my book, The Fifth Estate, from Marian FitzGerald, a Visiting Professor of Criminology at Kent Crime and Justice Centre in Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research at the University of Kent and a freelance consultant & researcher. Posted with the permission of Professor FitzGerald.    

Marian FitzGerald

“Your idea and book on The Fifth Estate is far too important to be limited to what is almost certainly the small readership it will have, even within the relatively small corner of the academic universe. The fact that your ideas transcend subdivisional boundaries may mean they don’t get the recognition they deserve within any corner of the academic universe. I hope they receive the recognition they deserve in relation to the as yet unrealised potential for citizens to hold governments to account as never before.   

That said, if the Fifth Estate is to be successful in holding governments to account, it needs: 1) Full, easy (and free) access to two types of statistical data collected by or on behalf of governments, and 2) Improved competence/ confidence in interrogating them. With respect to the first need, this applies particularly to data used to inform or to justify aspects of social policy.   

This is not to preclude scientific data but to recognise that these are more solid as a basis for informing policy decisions and monitoring their impact; and, by the same token, such decisions and the results claimed for the policy would be open to challenge, if necessary, in light of objectively verifiable empirical evidence.  

The direction of social policy, on the other hand, may be more susceptible to political influence in the first place. It may reflect any combination of the ideological positions of the government of the day/ the personal whims of some passing minister (and/or their political advisers)/ the electoral considerations which determine which issues all of the political parties choose to highlight (or prefer to avoid)/ (in part connected with that last) the relative influence of particular campaigning organisations and interest groups.   Insofar as governments/ politicians in general/ campaigning organisations and interest groups rely on statistics collected by or on behalf of the government to argue their case in relation to social policy, they will inevitably use them selectively; but journalists themselves invariably report these the figures uncritically. This makes it even more important for citizens to hold government to account by challenging their use of these figures; and this, in turn requires the Fifth Estate.    

But your Fifth Estate needs to have better – full, free and easy – access to two main sources of government figures in question.  

First, they need access to the wide range of the data that staff in public services and agencies are required formally to record, along with a full breakdown of the aggregated figures they submit to the relevant government departments and to the results of government/ government commissioned surveys. These need to be in a format which includes full details of the number in the unweighted sample broken down according to the socio-economic and demographic characteristics to allow the responses to all of the questions asked to be broken down according to the characteristics of the survey respondents.  

Secondly, there is a need to increase the public’s current level of competence/ confidence in interrogating both sources of statistics.  

I can provide practical examples from my own work of why these are necessary but would for now avoid going into any detail about exactly what the government should make available and in what format. I would, though, make the case that, while the above looks like a very tall order, it is the public which pays to have these figures collected in the first place and has the right to see what it has brought.  

Marian FitzGerald

17 July 2023  

Comments are most welcome