We’ve been here before, but that doesn’t make the pain of statistical abuse any lighter.
A government, down in the polling dumps, gets anxious to extol its policies. It seizes eagerly on any sign they are working. Temptation looms, in the shape of exaggerating or, as some would say, actively misinterpreting data.
The Department of Work and Pensions is in the firing line over statements made about the flow of claimants off disability benefit, in anticipation of the new more rigorous testing regime that is coming in as Personal Independence Payments (PIP) replace the Disability Living Allowance.
Ministers want good news; civil servants, especially those in Whitehall press offices, feel obliged to varnish and sometimes hype up the language used in press releases. The result: what began and remains accurate data (the numbers themselves are sound) become the basis for a contentious claim about process and even, at its strongest, an assertion about causality.
People have stopped claiming benefits, says the minister. That’s evidence they fear the new test (and by implication were malingerers). But there’s a constant flow on and off benefit; are recent movements indicating some deeper change specifically to do with the arrival of PIP? Definitely not, say the government’s critics, who include the Department of Work and Pension’s own former chief economist, now director of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research, Jonathan Portes.
His post in the Guardian is scathing. Statements made, he asserts, are untrue.
That’s a serious charge. But who’s to adjudicate it? It takes stamina and a fair understanding of the benefits system to follow the argument. The UK Statistics Authority would be the obvious permanently-available custodian of good statistics. In a statement they said “The Statistics Authority has received representations regarding the recent publication by the Department for Work and Pensions of ad hoc statistics about those identified as potentially impacted by the benefit cap. The Authority is reviewing the matter and will respond publicly in due course.”
But the danger is that, even when rebuttal takes place, there’s a residual stain, and the public’s disaffection with ‘the system’ grows.
Portes says ‘public cynicism about official statistics is often misplaced – restrictions on what government can do with official data are an unsung but essential element in modern democratic governance. When government seeks to get around these limitations by, in effect, simply making things up, this is not just an issue for geeks, wonks and pedants – it’s an issue for everyone’. He’s right.