Parliament Slams U.K. Government Spin Doctors

Government press releases cite statistics selectively, undermining public trust and good policymaking, say members of Parliament.
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Quite a rebuke tor a government that says it's all about opening its data for wider public benefit: An influential committee of British members of Parliament (MPs) said the way the state publishes and organizes its data needs a big revamp.

Parliament's Public Affairs Select Committee (PASC) has criticized in a report how government spin doctors use information that may be true, but is presented in a way that distorts the truth.

The group said government statistics press releases do not always give a "true and fair" picture of the story behind the statistics, and calls out press officers "sometimes going too far to create a newsworthy headline."

That means, said the report's summary (in perhaps more diplomatic language), "in some cases, the story behind [government] statistics is reduced in its presentation to such an extent that the picture is no longer true and fair."

[ Parliament's been busy checking up on ministry operations. Read British Tax Authority Criticized On Data Handling. ]

It cites examples such as a change in one month's figures on trade or unemployment generating the headline in a government press statement, while the more significant trend over the year is ignored.

Public trust in the integrity of government policy will be more likely if the public understand the evidence base and the statistics used, argued the study. Communicating statistics accurately, effectively and fairly is therefore an important way for the British government to "uphold its accountability to the public and to ensure transparency in what it does."

And though the MPs do praise the efforts of the main generators of official U.K. government data -- the U.K. Statistics Authority, the Office for National Statistics and Whitehall statisticians -- to better communicate statistics, it does also warn that "wider and deeper improvements are still needed to the presentation and explanation of government statistics" if public trust in them, and therefore in public policy, is to be "earned and kept."

That's why PASC's chairman, Bernard Jenkin MP, calls for "statistics officials to insist that press releases tell the true picture. Numbers may be perfectly true, but the act of selecting certain numbers distorts the true picture," he added.

This is important when those numbers are being used to justify a particular policy or apportioning of resources, said Jenkin, to such an extent that "spinning" reduces the story behind the statistics to such an extent the picture is no longer true.

In specific terms, PASC said the Office for National Statistics website must be improved, with government number-crunchers working much more closely with different kinds of users to present statistics in ways that meet their different needs.

Meanwhile, the Statistics Authority should find more "creative ways of communicating statistics," for example through interactive guides.

This should be in addition to the publication of more raw data in machine-readable format for experts who want the full results, it said, not just the "edited highlights" presented in releases for a "mass audience."

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