The push is on to help charities and the voluntary sector to be better consumers and producers of statistics. At a recent meeting convened at the Royal Statistical Society, representatives of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, the UK Statistics Authority, the Third Sector Research Centre and major players in the sector such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation resolved to work together to improve uptake and training.
For its part the government in the shape of the Office for Civil Society – part of the Cabinet Office – is mounting a new community survey to provide data on volunteering and charitable activities, a part replacement for the Citizenship Survey, which the Communities and Local Government Department decided to end two years ago.
The third or voluntary sector is data rich. Delivering services depends on good knowledge of people and social conditions; charity trustees and grant givers need to measure the effectiveness of their work; voluntary bodies produce data about the people and causes they serve.
But this ‘sector’ is highly differentiated. Many charities are tiny and intensely local. They may lack the time, energy and capacity to conduct reliable sample surveys, read spreadsheets or advance much beyond story-telling and subjective impressions. ‘Evidence is the plural of anecdote,’ the RSS meeting was told. Few charities have the wherewithal to mount a randomized control trial, the gold standard for assessing the effectiveness of social interventions.
Official statistics are not always useful, because they cannot be broken down to the local areas, communities and estates where charities operate.
Can norms around the use of data, statistics and evidence be changed? Only if a concerted effort were to be made to educate trustees and staff, and to provide consultancy and external assistance – which is where RSS getstats comes in. But ‘capacity building’ funds of the kind that were available under the previous government have been cut.
In a report last year the UK Statistics Authority saw the need for ‘ongoing support and closer engagement with experts’. Umbrella groups such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) should get closer to those producing statistics, and shape their decisions about what data to collect.