Disappearing data

  • Published: Dec 07, 2010
  • Author: Tom MacInnes
  • Category: Services

In the last week, NPI have received four e-mails about consultations on or threats to the official data sources we use in our work. Two large surveys are under threat. Following a 17% cut in its budget, the Office for National Statistics is consulting on its future projects. 

These official, publicly available data sources are at the heart of our work, and their loss would be felt not just by us and our research partners but right across the UK research sector. At the moment, getting hold of good, official statistics is far easier in the UK than in other parts of Europe. The kind of analysis we do at NPI would be impossible in, say, France outside of academia. Scrapping these household surveys would end this advantage. 

Our ability to do carry on analysing public policy is not the most important issue. The new government has made great claims about making its processes more transparent and more accountable, by publishing detailed accounts at central and local government levels. Obviously this is laudable. Taxpayers deserve to know where their money goes, and the knowledge that scrutiny will be applied should make those spending it think more carefully when writing cheques. Good.

But by scrapping surveys and limiting the scope of official statistics, this new scrutiny will be applied only to inputs, not outcomes. We will know to the penny how much money local authorities have spent on supporting voluntary groups, but, if the Citizenship Survey is scrapped, we won’t know what difference it has made to the number of people who volunteer. We’ll know how much money has been spent on smoking cessation programmes, but all the information from the General Lifestyle Survey about smoking trends will be lost.

These surveys are used within and outside government to measure progress in particular policies, as well as doing the essential job of describing how the characteristics of the country change over time. To get rid of them is, at best, careless.  It’s also inconsistent to scrap these surveys in the name of money saving while announcing a new Wellbeing Index (cost of scoping said index: £2m ). Frank Field’s review published today requires lots of data to be recorded and published to monitor the progress of the government in improving child wellbeing. This stuff matters. The surveys should stay.

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