April 25, 2017

Electioneering and statistics

In New Zealand, the Government Statistician reports to the Minister of Statistics, currently Mark Mitchell.  For about a decade, the UK has had a different system, where the National Statistician reports to the UK Statistics Authority, which is responsible directly to Parliament. The system is intended to make official statistics more clearly independent of the government of the day.

An additional role of the UK Statistics Authority is as a sort of statistics ombudsman when official statistics are misused.  There’s a new letter from the Chair to the UK political parties

The UK Statistics Authority has the statutory objective to promote and safeguard the production and publication of official statistics that serve the public good.

My predecessors Sir Michael Scholar and Sir Andrew Dilnot have in the past been obliged to write publicly about the misuse of official statistics in other pre-election periods and during the EU referendum campaign. Misuse at any time damages the integrity of statistics, causes confusion and undermines trust.

I write now to ask for your support and leadership to ensure that official statistics are used throughout this General Election period and beyond, in the public interest and in accordance with the principles of the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. In particular, the statistical sources should be clear and accessible to all; any caveats or limitations in the statistics should be respected; and campaigns should not pick out single numbers that differ from the picture painted by the statistics as a whole.

I am sending identical letters to the leaders of the main political parties, with a copy to Sir Jeremy Heywood, Cabinet Secretary.

We don’t have anyone whose job it is to write that sort of letter here, but it would be nice if the political parties (and their partisans) still followed this advice.


Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »


  • avatar
    Jim Rose

    Correct question is what does minister do given statistician does not report to him nor can be dismissed by him

    6 months ago

    • avatar
      Thomas Lumley

      I think the appearance of separation from the government is useful. I agree that the NZ Government Statistician is independent both in theory and in practice. I’ve said so on this blog — but I’ve also had to defend the view in comments here against people who don’t agree.

      6 months ago

  • avatar
    Richard Penny

    A small correction.

    From Tuesday 2 May the Minister of Statistics will be Scott Simpson. Outside cabinet (usual) and bottom ranked (not uncommon).

    6 months ago

  • avatar
    steve curtis

    Most heads of departments are in theory independent CEOs of their departments. I think only the Minister of Corrections, Immigration and that of the SIS/GCSB can direct their department.
    What occurs in practice is quite different

    6 months ago